Why Do We Pray? 6 – Intercessory Prayer

Posted: March 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 6 – Intercessory Prayer

At this point in my series, the question that should arise in any reader’s mind is a straightforward one. How does intercessory prayer fit into everything I’ve attempted to describe? It’s a good question and I think it’s one every person who deeply thinks about Christian prayer must face at some point. And it’s a question which, if answered too facilely, ends up painting a pretty ugly picture of God. I think John, the commenter on the opening post of this series, expressed one such objection well.

“So somehow God is going to help me get through a situation or make an outcome better while people are dying and struggling with things that are way more important than my nerves when speaking in public.”

Indeed. A God like that is capricious, weak, or even evil. It’s certainly not a God I would care to worship.

But we also can’t escape the role intercessory prayer has always played in Christianity. It’s deeply embedded in our spiritual DNA. We pray individually for the needs of others. We offer intercessions corporately in liturgy. Christianity has a sacrament of holy unction or healing. We believe the saints, living and reposed, pray with us and for us, interceding on our behalf. We are instructed to pray for one another and we are told those prayers are effective.

And indeed, our tradition is rich with stories of such effective prayers, both the mundane and the wonderful. It’s hard to find a Christian who would say they have never experienced an answered prayer.

So how do we resolve that tension? Before I offer my thoughts, I feel it’s important to note that these are just my current ideas. I make no guarantee I’ll think the same way tomorrow, though these thoughts have developed over the years and seem relatively unlikely to change dramatically at this point. Others may find them helpful or they may not. I will say that I think it’s more important to actually pray than to necessarily understand why we pray. With that disclaimer, I’ll proceed.

In order to explore this question, I’ll have to start by reflecting back on past things I’ve written about the nature of human beings and what Christians label “sin.” It’s a tenet of Christian faith that God created man in his image. Creation was not shaped from some pre-existing eternal stuff. Only the uncreated God is eternal, that is has always existed and will always exist. Of course, sometimes when we say that God created ex nihilo, or out of nothing, we don’t pause to ask, “From where did that nothing come?” The perfect God of self-sufficient and overflowing love somehow made room for a creation that, while filled and sustained by God, nevertheless is not God. When you think about it deeply, it’s pretty mind-boggling.

And the human being, at the apex of that creation (or at least the piece that forms our planet), was created with a nature intended to image God into that creation. When we choose to image something else into creation, we call that sin. And while sometimes the effects of sin are obviously causal and related, I have suggested elsewhere that’s not always the case. We do not and perhaps cannot perceive the way our choice to image something else into the fabric of creation distorts and damages it. We do not perceive all the ripples and all the changes.

Moreover, we are not isolated beings. Christianity, in fact, teaches that we are more tightly interwoven through our shared nature than we usually comprehend. That’s why, when the Word assumed our nature and mortality, the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection had universal effect. Jesus defeated death and freed us from its bondage. He changed the nature of humanity, which changed all human beings. We see ourselves as separate and independent, but we are less so than we believe.

One of the deep dangers we face every day is the temptation to look at another human being and see ourselves as somehow separate and perhaps even better. We see that truth revealed in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. But it’s not only when we look on the other with pride that we are mistaken, but sometimes also when we look on the other with compassion. We look at another and say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and perhaps we even try to help. But the truth is we are all bound together in everything we suffer and we have all contributed in some way, even unaware, to that suffering. This is so deeply true and embedded in our faith that it is perhaps better to look at our brother or sister and simply acknowledge, “There go I.”

Prayer, then, especially intercessory prayer, is in some sense the opposite of sin. To the extent we are able to align our wills with God’s and begin to image God into creation as we were intended to do, we join God in the healing of creation rather than its destruction. I’m always reminded of the image from Revelation, “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Sometimes we may see what appears to be a causal relationship. (We pray for someone and they receive that for which we have prayed.) Other times we may not see any direct effect. In this sense, intercessory prayer subverts sin and heals the damage we have collectively caused to the fabric of creation.

When I think of intercessory prayer (and sin for that matter), I often think of the butterfly effect. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it comes from chaos theory. In precise language it describes a sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Basically, it’s capturing the idea that a small change in one area of a non-linear system can create a large difference in a later state of the system. The classic example from which the name is derived is that the formation of a hurricane could be contingent on a butterfly fluttering its wings weeks earlier and a continent away.

I think the whole of creation, spiritual and material, can certainly be described as a non-linear system, so it seems like an apt metaphor. At least, it helps me place intercessory prayer in a context in which it makes some sense to me. It may be less helpful to others.


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