Intercessory Prayer, Lists and Limits

Rieveux Abbey (above) is a medieval ruin, a relic of an ancient place of prayer in the heart of Yorkshire.

Here in the north of England, it’s not quite Easter yet. Not that the arrival of Easter is any guarantee of sunshine or warmth in Yorkshire but we are still waiting, for Easter and for spring.

Lent is a season of waiting, of preparation and prayer, and in our fast paced world, this often feels like slowing down. Sadly, I’m not too good at doing ‘slow’, at setting aside time to ‘just’ pray.

In my home church during this period of Lent, we are collectively meeting for 40 days of prayer. This has been accompanied by some thoughtful teaching on the subject of prayer during Sunday sermons. There is rather a lot that I thought I knew about prayer but didn’t really, and I’ve even surprised my introvert self with the realisation that collective prayer can both be personally healing and a blessing to others.

I’m still reading through the books of the Old Testament Kings, with half my mind on the plot and the rest still on the subject of prayer. The sad end to King Solomon’s life has made me think about intercessory prayer and God’s sovereignty.

King Solomon had experienced an authentic and close relationship with God for many years, with a reputation and career built on ‘doing things for God’. He had enough wisdom and insight to  understand  completely that ‘obedience to God was better than sacrifice’, and would have been so very aware of the pitfalls  experienced by his ancestors in their dealings with this same God and same issue.

But King Solomon had reached the heady state of being internationally renowned. He had finished building God’s temple and his own palaces to exacting standards . He no longer needed to strive to achieve anything but happiness.

Soon after this point, King Solomon makes a very considered decision to follow the false’gods’ of his wives knowing this was the very thing which would break the covenant relationship he had with the God of Israel.

Perhaps Solomon thought that he ‘had it all now’ and  under-estimated the consequences of  turning his back on God at this late stage.

As a direct result of Solomon’s defiance, his kingdom is snatched away from him. ‘Enemies’ which had been mysteriously ‘held back’ by God during the earlier years of Solomon’s reign are now unleashed. Rehoboam (son of Solomon) ‘s troops are instructed by their master to oppose the takeover of the kingdom by Jeroboam but God intervenes:

This is what the Lord says: “Do not go up to fight against your brothers, the Israelites. Go home every one of you, for this is my doing”.

I Kings 12, 24

When we disobey God, there are consequences and God does not often spare us from these. If we humbly seek God’s forgiveness, he can restore us and redeem our circumstances but this story is a stake in the ground for realism in our prayer life. Such insight determines the tone of my prayer: “Lord take me out of this sorry mess”, or “Lord I confess, I sinned against you, please forgive and have mercy”.

In the early Christian church intercessory prayer around confession and forgiveness was encouraged:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

James 5, 16.

There are of course many situations we face which simply happen because Christians are human and suffering is part of ‘fallen’ humanity. There are other ordeals which happen because other people do wrong. Collectively these are often referred to in scripture as ‘trials’. God does not often spare us from these either.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1, 2-4.

Trials have purpose: to refine our faith, to lead us in new directions, to strengthen our character. We can often treat prayer like a proverbial ‘magic wand’, asking (some make demands) for immediate healing from even the most minor of ailments, miraculous disappearance of disability and a supernaturally smooth transition through natural life phases such as adolescence, parenthood, and bereavement in a way which defies all logic, and takes no account of the biblical utility of trials in human life.

So, I’m learning to be more thoughtful in my intercessory prayer. I’m beginning to understand what it means to pray, ‘Your will be done’ and  to understand God’s heart for those he wants me to pray for.

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Intercessory prayer deserves more dignity than a mere list. It’s better thought of as  a  serious covenant between us and God, rather than a list of names or needs we blow into the wind in the direction a God whom we assume is running to catch the dandelion seeds.

The Holy Scriptures offer examples of intercessory prayer:

  • For kings and all those in authority, that we should live quiet and peaceable lives with all godliness and honesty. (I Timothy 2, 1-2)
  • For our enemies. (Luke 6:27–28)
  • For forgiveness for one another. ( James 5, 16)
  • For safety in extreme situations (Ezra 8, 21-23)
  • For those with serious illness (James 5, 14-16)
  • For spiritual growth in the lives of fellow christians ( Eph 1, 15-21)
  • For open doors and open hearts to the Gospel of Jesus Christ ( Colossians 4,2)

These early church pray -ers were the movers and shakers of society and the church. They were focused in their prayers and that focus was more spiritual than physical.

John Piper has written an excellent article on how to pray for our enemies which provides a fresh take on praying for others from a spiritual rather than a physical perspective.

Lord teach us to pray,

Take our minds off the merely physical, and help us focus on spiritual needs.

Lord may our prayers be acceptable to You.

May God raise us up as a people who pray with purpose, His purpose.

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