“It’s real hard to be out here on the trail with my grandfather in such bad shape,” he said. “And my mom’s hurting real bad. I’m afraid of what this will do to her.”
I was on a week-long backpacking trip and one of the long-distance trekkers we met was opening up about his story. I listened quietly to the pain that was spilling out. And then it hit me—a strong impression that I should pray for him and for this situation.
Pray for a stranger? Right here, right now? I’d found myself avoiding intercession in the past year, grappling with a feeling of powerlessness to even know how to begin to pray for needs I encountered, but now I felt compelled to do it. Out loud. With someone I had known for less than an hour. God was calling me out of my comfort zone, into a place of risk and faith. How would I respond to the invitation?
Intercession is a specific kind of prayer focused on the needs of others. “Intercessory Prayer,” Richard Foster writes, “is a priestly ministry…. As priests, appointed and anointed by God, we have the honor of going before the Most High on behalf of others. This is not optional; it is a sacred obligation—and a precious privilege—for all believers.”
Most believers probably know they should pray for others. But moving from the place of obligation to seeing intercession as a “precious privilege” is more rare. Why might this be the case? Perhaps it’s the challenge of living in a busy, stress-filled, nonstop world, with constant sound, entertainment, and demands for our attention. Perhaps it is spiritual warfare, a subtle attack seeking to undermine one of the most powerful actions we can take as believers. Or maybe it’s a case of “seeing is believing”—when we don’t instantly see answers to all of our prayers, we begin to lose faith that they really make a difference. I think all of these factors have been stumbling blocks to my own intercession journey at times.
To fully comprehend this precious privilege of the believer—to dramatically impact the world through prayer—I believe we must first grasp the goodness of God and his readiness to respond. We must have a compelling love and vision for people and places that go far beyond what we could ever do for them ourselves. And we must make space to practice and find that God truly does respond.
Where do you land between obligation and privilege? While I still have a long ways to go in my journey as an intercessor, I have discovered some important paths around common roadblocks. So as a fellow traveler, let me share what I’ve learned so far. I hope some of these points might draw you a little deeper towards embracing your own role as God’s privileged priest in the world.
1. Grasp the Goodness of God
I hit a point in my own faith journey where I was doubting God’s goodness, and just wasn’t sure if he really wanted to respond to the needs around me. These doubts were rooted in painful events and disappointments in my own life, and played out in a weakening of my prayer life. I would encounter the needs of others and desperately desire things to change for them, but hit a wall of uncertainty about whether God would want to do anything about it. Intercession became very difficult because I had lost sight of the heart of God. In order to pray effectively for others, I had to first reconnect with God’s love both for me and for the world.
Jesus pointed out the link between trusting God’s character and coming to him in prayer with a simple analogy: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).
To pray for others, I first had to spend time with Jesus. I had to start recognizing his goodness in my life through practices of gratitude. I had to start asking him what his perspective was on situations in my life, and reflecting on questions like, “If I really believed that God was good and powerful, what might change about how I’m seeing this?” As I traveled down that road, I started to see a shift. I started offering to pray for those I met with needs. My faith in God’s character and desire to make a difference was being transformed, and so was my heart for intercession.
Knowing God’s character is not only important for willingness to pray, but in knowing how. Richard Foster emphasizes that in order to know what to pray, we must know what God wants to do. Jesus told us to ask for things in his name—meaning we should ask as if we were stand-ins for Jesus himself. How can we know what Jesus would ask for? “Well,” Richard Foster writes, “how does a couple who has been married many loving years know what each other thinks and wants and feels? We know, even as we are known. This is how we pray in Jesus’ name.” Knowledge of God fuels our intercession and makes it effective.
2. Develop a Compelling Love and Vision
One of the other hurdles to a vibrant practice of intercession is that we don’t have a compelling reason to pray. We may find ourselves trying to pray for things that we honestly don’t care more than two cents about—things that haven’t actually touched our hearts or our lives in a significant way. Foster has very specific advice to address this prayer block.
“I suggest that you begin by praying for an increase in your love for others. As God grows your capacity to care, you will very naturally begin working for the good of your neighbors, your friends, even your enemies. Doing this, you will quickly reach the end of your tether. You will want them to enter into things and receive things that you cannot give them. This will cause you to pray.” (emphasis added)
I have found that personal experience is a powerful motivator for prayer. At one point in my missionary journeys, I spent time with a ministry in the red light districts of Thailand. We were taught what was going on, and spent time on-the-ground—walking from one end of the district to the other, making a quick pass through the bars and brothel areas to increase our understanding and sensitivity to the spiritual heaviness of the place, and engaging in intentional conversations with the clients headed into the bars. As a result, our times of intercession were powerful. Our hearts had been broken by what we’d seen, and my team could pray for hours for God’s transformation to come. Others familiar with the ministry would join us in prayer from around the world, interceding and sending the words and scriptures that God was leading them to as they prayed. We would discover that often God’s Spirit was leading us to pray for the same things at the same time from opposite sides of the globe.
What’s my point? Well, if you want to be able to intercede for your neighbors, it will probably help to really know your neighbors. If you want to intercede passionately for those who don’t know God, ask God to open up relationships for you with some of those people. And if you want to pray with passion for specific parts of the world, consider how you can get more personally connected to what’s going on there. It may really revolutionize your prayer life.
One last note—Richard Foster points out that a key way to recognize that God is specifically directing you to intercede for something is having a strong desire to do so. If God is giving you a vision or burden for something specific, be it a person, country, ministry, or situation, take that as a strong indication that you may be called to intercede for it.
3. Practice and See What Happens
The simplest way to develop a heart for intercession is by interceding! There are few things more exciting than taking action and witnessing dramatic and supernatural results taking place.
Here’s one example. For a number of years, CRM had a designated Intercession Team, made up of several staff and one non-staff member, Carolyn Laurin. Carolyn is a current ministry partner who served on the CRM board for a number of years, and she witnessed God answer prayer in many, many ways during her season with the Intercession Team. “I remember praying for a staff member with a ministry to China,” she said, “and he went through the most horrible episode of cancer. The Lord put it on my heart to pray for healing for him relentlessly—because God was going to use him in a major role to bring the Kingdom to China, and the Chinese Christians were going to take the good news into the Muslim world as well. It was the first time I ever prayed for someone I didn’t know, and hadn’t met—fervently, passionately, and faithfully. And that man got healed—after a long, grueling battle with cancer, the Lord healed him.” Time and again, the team prayed, and God answered. Now, in her seventies, Carolyn continues to pray, even taking intercession to the streets—prayer-walking outside of a local mosque, and praying that the people there would have their eyes opened and be delivered from darkness and bondage. The faith that comes from seeing miraculous answers to prayer is a powerful motivator to keep pressing in.
It may be very helpful in your journey deeper into intercession to pray alongside others, especially in the beginning. Coming together for the purpose of prayer creates an intentional, focused space, away from the full force of life’s distractions, where you can build on what others pray, and listen together for God’s voice (read more about listening for God’s voice here). I find that I have a lot more capacity to pray when I am not doing it alone. This dynamic of “praying with” can also work to some extent through praying for the same needs from separate locations. Sometimes just knowing that you are one voice in a whole choir of voices lifting up a request to God can be a helpful motivator. An example is CRM’s prayer partners, who pray together for specific requests from ministry locations around the world. (Join us!)
Whether you are interceding in groups or on your own, having a few different ideas of ways to take a need to God in prayer can help get you going. Here are a couple of my personal favorites.
- Use scripture as a springboard to prayer.
- Start with prayers recorded in the Bible, and model your requests after them. (examples: Matthew 6:9-13, Ephesians 1:16-23, Ephesians 3:16-19).
- There are many passages that reveal what God’s will and Kingdom would look like in our world. Use these scriptures to ground your requests in things you confidently know God desires (examples: 1 Timothy 2:3-4, Philippians 4:6-8, John 13:34).
- God created your imagination. Use it!
- Imagine bringing a person into God’s presence. What happens when they get there? Pray into that.
- Imagine the reality of a situation, and then what God’s will or Kingdom would look like in that situation. Pray for those things to become real.
By now you have probably guessed how I responded to God’s invitation on the trail to pray for that “stranger” in pain. I shared with him that I really wanted to pray for his grandfather. While he told me he wasn’t a “praying person,” he was willing to be prayed for, right on the spot.
So gazing up at one of the most beautiful mountain views I have ever seen, I poured out my heart for this man and for his family, inviting the presence and goodness and power of God into the situation. At the close we sat in silence—a deep stillness. I think there were tears. I had walked into God’s throne room with one who wasn’t accustomed to show up there, intervened as God’s priest in a place of pain. And I believe the love of God felt more real and present to both of us because of it. The call to intercession is a precious privilege—and we can discover that every time we step out and try it.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
- Where are you at in your own journey as an intercessor?
- Which roadblocks do you resonate with the most?
- What one step will you take this week to go a little deeper in your practice as God’s priest in the world?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Megan Beehler is a Minnesota-girl living in Long Beach, CA. She has been with CRM since 2014, first as a member of a missional community, and now as part of CRM’s Communications Team, where she has the privilege to hear many powerful stories of what God is doing around the world in partnership with his people.