Intercessory Prayer


Thanks to DKBlog for this quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner on the subject of prayer:

If prayer worked the way many people think it does, no one would ever die, because no prayer is ever offered more sincerely than the prayer for life, for health and recovery from illness, for ourselves and for those we love.

People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have.
This quote summarizes why I have never liked the use of intercessory prayer in church services. I understand that, for many people, prayers for health or healing or the like are really ways of unloading onto God our concerns and fears, rather than serving as a bona fide attempt to convince God to intervene theistically and supernaturally to change the course of events. But even if this is the way some people feel about it, in my experience it is rarely stated that way explicitly in church services, and even the term "intercessory" (which is sometimes used in church) presumes that God will somehow "intercede" on our behalf if we ask "him" nicely enough. On the other hand, as Rabbi Kushner says, if we pray for courage or strength in the face of our fears, frailties, and difficulties, then we often find that in just talking to God we discover something inside ourselves that allows us to better face the world. In that sense, God can be a wonderful shoulder to cry on.


WES ELLIS said...

Good stuff. I think Kushner always does well to remind us that God is in the ditches with us. We need to hold this in the balance of God's transcendence/sovereignty and God's immanence. God is mysteriously with us, the cross is the greatest image of this. But God is also mysteriously, not sure how to put it, "in charge." For even though there is the cross, resurrection is right around the corner. God suffers and God is victorious. We suffer and we, through God, will be victorious.

On another note, I don't think this is reason to drop intercessory prayer altogether. We just need to find new ways of thinking of it. The Jews of the Old Testament (as if they can be generalized) were very forward with God about him keeping to his word. I think we can be forward too, if only to keep ourselves from passively accepting things the way they are.
God post

Danny said...

I don't know how I feel about intercessory prayer either. It is really the only thing that happens at my church down here for prayer (along with theological prayers that talk about the goodness of God, etc.), but they don't even pray for miracles. They pray that God would be with the doctor. It is such an interesting thing to pray for a denomination that believes in the sovereignty of God.


Mystical Seeker said...

Wes, thanks for your thoughts about the value of not dropping intercessory prayer. I am open to thinking about it in new ways. I have to admit, though, that I wish it were called something different than "intercessory" prayer.

Chris, I would imagine that praying for God to be with the doctor is a not uncommon form of intercessory prayer. I'm not sure what that means, though, to be honest--it could mean that God is being asked to help the doctor make the right decisions, or maybe something less interventionist. But I agree that it seems a little limiting if you really believe in God's omnipotent sovereignty.

I had a sick grandmother who was prayed for when she had hardening of the arteries in her leg; she survived and her leg was saved, but then she developed dementia in the aftermath of that. My mother used to say that it seemed like a curse that her prayers for her survival had been answered given what happened to her mind--as if God granted a wish on a literal level much like those fictional genies who grant you a wish but know you are going to get more than you understood you were asking for. This would make God out to be one who plays tricks on us by granting us our wishes only for us to regret what we get. I never understood that concept of God and prayer.

Danny said...

Perhaps the problem is treating God like a genie. I have a really big problem with what Donald Miller calls the "coke-machine" God. But I don't know how to get a way from it. So often that is the primary way that we are told to understand God. We pray that his "will" would be done, but how do we know what his will is? If we are praying for his will, why would we pray anyways since we can't change it? These are all important questions, but many do not take the time to consider it.

The paradox is, most people believe God is sovereign over all situations, but they pray like he is not.

Brian said...

The paradox is, most people believe God is sovereign over all situations, but they pray like he is not.

Maybe that is why Jesus' prayers for healing were always answered whereas 99.9% of the prayers for healing I've ever heard are not.