A few nights ago a television commentator had some things to say about intercessory prayer. What got him started was a report of a minister who proudly claimed to pray each day for President Obama’s demise in some horrible way, and he was certain that God would oblige. The commentator was not amused and went on to express doubt in any kind of intercessory prayer for any purpose to a God who may or may not exist.
Well, I can’t help him with his doubts about God. He’ll have to struggle with that on his own. But he did get me thinking about what intercessory prayer actually is and whether it has any efficacy. Oddly enough, a good place to start is to leave God out of the equation altogether. Any reader of English from anytime prior to say the mid 19th century will discover a lot of praying going on between ordinary people. It was common for an inferior to pray to a superior for some particular boon. Equals might pray to each other for favors to be granted outright or perhaps traded. To pray, in that sense, meant to ask something of another. Today we don’t use the word pray in that sense, and we are not as sensitive to the rules of class distinction, but we still do it.
My neighbor went on vacation this summer and asked if I would keep a key to his house as well as an eye on it. His assumption was that out of our neighborliness and mutual trust I would agree. Another neighbor has a key to our house, and I’ve often asked him to look in on things during our winter absences. These are neighbors trusting one another with all that they have and assuming that each will do good for the other. It is very much a form of intercessory prayer. How many more examples might there be? When a sick friend asks you to go to the store or help around the house, is that not an intercessory prayer? A child asking for homework help? A panhandler asking for a dollar? Parents who ask teachers to look after their children, or worried spouses asking physicians to look after their loved ones? A co-worker asking for assistance? Someone asking for love, friendship or just a listening ear? How many more can you think of? They are all forms of intercessory prayer by one human being to another.
That kind of prayer has some essential predicates. The one who offers the prayer and the one who receives it must have some knowledge of each other. There must be a certain level of trust between them. The one answering the prayer must have both the ability and willingness to do so. There must also be some ethical or moral standard by which the prayer and the rightness of a response can be measured. The recent market debacles and all the local scams that cheat people out of their money reveal our ability to be too easily deceived, more than a bit gullible, and often motivated by barely disguised greed. But with that said, a stranger asking from us a favor of great value will no doubt be turned down. Even a friend asking for something we deem hurtful, illegal or immoral may be rejected. Other friends asking for one thing may be answered by our gift of something altogether different based on our judgment about what they really need, want or would be good for them. It’s an imperfect system but it’s in use all the time. It’s simply a part of our daily lives.
Why then is it so hard to apprehend intercessory prayers offered up to God? Our shared faith proclaims that no one knows us better than God; to God all hearts are open and from him no secrets are hid. If God’s love for humanity is so great that he would be manifested in the flesh of Jesus Christ, why would we doubt that God’s presence with us does not continue at that very intimate level? Do the same predicates apply? In a sense I think they do, except that God already knows each one of us and desires for us all that is good. The question is, do we know God, or, at least, are we open to the possibility of knowing Go? Maybe that’s all it takes. I think there also needs to be some level of trust that no matter how clumsily we may offer up our prayers, the one who loves us most will receive them. A big problem for us is that God’s ability and willingness to answer our prayers as we have offered them is not beholden to our limitations. And finally there is the moral question: the morality or immorality of our prayers will not be hidden from God, and whatever God’s response, it will never be immoral.
All of that is good as far as it goes, but it opens up a tangled thicket of confusion and conflict about issues of theodicy. Not when, but why do bad things happen to good people? What is the source of evil and how come God doesn’t do anything about it? Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer? All legitimate questions and all probed in depth by the psalmists, so we know that they are the eternal questions and not just our own.
One response to that is to tell God to take a hike. We don’t need him. He’s notoriously unreliable. We can attend to these matters ourselves because we don’t really trust God to do the right thing, and we already know what the right thing is anyway. It’s a common response. It provides some short term ego satisfaction. And it almost always turns out bad in the end.
On the other hand, we Christians are called to a life of formation in the Christian faith that requires the courage to walk into that thicket willing to be taught and learn in ways that are not always satisfying but are always holy. They are ways that lead us, bit by bit, to participation with God as agents of his answers to intercessory prayer bringing real presence to the prayer attributed to St. Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen