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 10 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 fourteen grandchildren.

One comment:

  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!

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