Trouble with Intercessory Prayer

An emailer wrote saying he felt he wasn’t good at intercessory prayer. My reply:

I’m with you about intercessory prayer. I think I don’t know how to do it very well. I have a long list of names I bring before God every night, and a shorter list when I sit down at the computer in the morning. But I don’t linger or pray intensely for them and I wonder “is this even doing any good?” 

I take comfort from a bishop who, when he was going to send a prayer request to his spiritual father on Mt Athos, said, “All we need is the name. The name is very important.” 

Of course, sometimes I pray intensely for someone. I heard someone say “My favorite form of prayer is worry.”  🙂 I am capable of praying the same thing over and over again, when I’m worried. 

I recall St. Paisios saying that people think it would be hard to “pray without ceasing,” but it actually isn’t. Any of us could begin praying right now and never stop. All it takes is catastrophe. :-/

And there are times I have experienced when I felt the Lord leading me to pray intensely for someone, and guided my prayer so my understanding was expanded as I went along. I’ve even felt compelled like that to pray for people I dont know. I felt like I was being used as one in a relay chain of intercessors, and it wasn’t necessary for me to have the details, I should just pray!

The whole question about intercessory prayer runs into the knowledge that God’s will is done, and so it’s futile to try to change his mind, so why pray anyway? But we know we are supposed to pray, and when we’re worried we can’t help but do it. 

I came up with this analogy in my book “Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her,” in a section about asking saints to pray for us: 

<<The more you think about the whole matter of intercessory prayer, the more puzzling it gets. Why ask anybody, even a friend, to pray for you? Why do you need help? Can’t you do your own praying, and take it to God directly?

In fact, why pray at all? Isn’t God going to have his will anyway, one way or another?

And yet it is undeniable that God wants us to pray, for ourselves and for each other. Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge calls us to vigorous, persistent prayer (Luke 18:1-7). God wants us to be whole-hearted participants in his work, though he obviously doesn’t need our help to do anything.

Perhaps this is like a mom having her children help her make cookies, though she could do it a lot more efficiently alone. God loves us. He wants us to participate in his work, because he wants to be in communion with us. The whole universe is arranged for the very purpose of enabling creatures to encounter God. >>

We’re like those kids “helping” with the cookies. We don’t know what we’re doing, and don’t do it very well. But God prefers us to be there, “helping” in our limited human way. He loves us, and he loves the person we’re praying for, and it all works together somehow. It’s actually a privilege, to be allowed to participate in this work, though we probably give the angels reasons to smile sometimes.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 11 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fifteen grandchildren.


  1. Two stories that come to mind are Abraham pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and Moses pleading with God to spare the Israelites when they made the golden calf.
    Maybe those are examples of God willing them to be involved and then only appearing to relent, but it sure sounds like they talked Him out of it, doesn’t it?
    When a relative was very sick, her husband told me almost in tears that maybe it was his fault, because he hadn’t prayed harder–which logic makes God sound very cruel.
    I don’t know what my point is here – ha! Just agreeing with you that intercessory prayer is hard to understand.
    Thank you for everything you write. We readers are lucky!

  2. These questions vexed me for several years–and then I came across at least a partial answer by a rather odd route. It was November of 1993; I was a student at Oxford, and regularly browsed the used book section at Blackwell’s bookstore. I’d noticed a used copy of C. S. Lewis’ George MacDonald: An Anthology. On a student’s shoestring budget and knowing very little of MacDonald, I’d passed it by several times, but, one afternoon, I felt a strange . . . prompting, or something–and went back and bought the book, and took it to a quiet place, the back room of the Eagle and Child Pub, to give it a look and see what had so intrigued Lewis about this author.
    Flipping through some of the daily entries, I came across this excerpt from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, and realized that here, at last, was a pretty-good answer to the “why” of intercession–and of petitionary prayer, more generally:

    “But if God is so good as you represent Him, and if He knows all that we need, and better far than we do ourselves, why should it be necessary to ask Him for anything?” I answer, What if He knows Prayer to be the thing we need first and most? What if the main object in God’s idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need—the need of Himself?…Hunger may drive the runaway child home, and he may or may not be fed at once, but he needs his mother more than his dinner. Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other need: prayer is the beginning of that communion, and some need is the motive of that prayer…. So begins a communion, a taking with God, a coming-to-one with Him, which is the sole end of prayer, yea, of existence itself in its infinite phases. We must ask that we may receive: but that we should receive what we ask in respect of our lower needs, is not God’s end in making us pray, for He could give us everything without that: to bring His child to his knee, God withholds that man may ask.”

    Looking back at the date of that purchase, which I’d written in the book, I noticed that it was November 22, 1993: 30 years to the day after C. S. Lewis’ death.

    1. That is so beautiful, and so helpful. You can always trust CS Lewis to make the best and shortest way through a problem, and also the most profound.
      I did a podcast episode once on “There is no sense in being a writer in a world CS Lewis has already passed through.” 🙂
      Sorry for the delay in approving your post. I am swamped by spam. I just cleared away 382 spam comments!

  3. There’s a conversation in a novel by George MacDonald: “I asked him, sir, ‘Shall I tell him you are praying for him?’ and he said, ‘No. I am not exactly praying for him, but I am thinking of God and him together.'” It needs the context to really appreciate the sweetness of his words, but they touched me deeply and I think of them often.

      1. It’s from Thomas Wingfold, Curate. MacDonald’s novels can be awfully tedious (wordy!!!) in places but he shares wisdom through his characters who deal with doubt, legalism, forgiveness, etc. in ways that have changed my life. I also read another comment on intercessory prayer that I never saved the source for, don’t even remember the exact words. Something like “The Father always listens when we bring someone else before him.” I have this image of pushing someone toward him and saying, “here he is God – help!”

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