Does it matter that I pray for others?
Yes. I believe that it does. It matters not only in our Anglican worship services where we traditionally include “Intercessions” or “Prayers of the People”, but also in our daily lives. Several years ago, a friend asked me: “Why do we pray every week for peace in the Middle East when history shows us that people have been fighting each other for thousands of years and the prayers for peace over the centuries have not made any difference?” How you would answer that question? The question caused me to think deeply about why we pray intercessory prayers for others.
What does Intercession” or “Intercessory Prayer” mean?
Intercession comes from two Latin words, inter, which means “between” and cedere, which means “to go”. To intercede is to go between two people in the hope of reconciling differences or to plead with someone on behalf of the other. In the context of prayer it means we make sure we bring others into our times of conversation with God. An Intercessor acts as a “conduit” for the Holy Spirit to “connect” God’s people with God. In our intercessions we are not trying to change God’s mind nor are we presuming to say what should be done for our people.
Why do we pray for others?
If God knows about those for whom we pray, and their needs, why do we need to pray for them and will it do any good? I think most of us have prayed for another person who is in need and it is not apparent that it has had any effect. I suspect that when we pray for others we are concentrating on a certain outcome – we want something to happen or change. I’d like to suggest that while this is a natural tendency, perhaps there is another way to look at intercessory prayer. Prayer is essentially a communication between the person who prays and God. So, the essential element is communication with God about where our heart is. Praying for others is the way we tell God what is on our heart. When we pray for healing or for peace in the Middle East, we are opening our heart to God, and to those for whom we pray. If we concentrate on what we are feeling and what has moved us to reach out to others, our focus is on loving care, not the outcome. Going back to the question posed by my friend, the answer I arrived at was that we pray to God for peace in the Middle East because our compassion, love and hearts are with the people and the situation there. In doing so, we will be changed, whether or not things there are changed directly. For example, perhaps we will be led to take some action to help or care for the victims of the conflict. In praying for a person who is ill, perhaps we will be moved to reach out to them and help them in some way, even if it is simply calling them or visiting them. The outcome of our prayers may not have any apparent effect on the big picture, but will have a positive outcome on one or more person’s life, including our own. Not only can we pray with words, but we can also pray by taking actions that are motivated by love and fuelled the Holy Spirit.
We need to remember that God is the one who brings peace and healing, not the person who prays. Jane Vennard is a noted author and spiritual director who came to our Diocese a few years ago. She suggests one way of looking at the effects of Intercessory Prayer is to envisage that there are barriers around the person or situation we are praying for, that are impeding God’s love and action. Our prayers can be seen as lowering the barriers that exist, so that God’s love and mercy can enter and affect change. Visualizing the barriers coming down can be helpful in allowing us to focus our hearts in prayer in the right way.
Walter Wink, another author, who has visited our Diocese in the past, has called Intercession the politics of hope. People who engage in intercessory prayer are instruments of that hope, motivated by a positive vision of the future. When we embrace God’s future we look to the present and the future with hope.