I live in a small town that has a history of very active, civic involvement. It is not unusual to be approached and asked to sign a petition. Generally, I do not sign petitions. Often it is someone else’s issue and I’m not always clear what is being asked of me. By the same token, I am skeptical of democracy, except that everything else seems worse.
When it comes to prayer and someone asks me to pray for them – what, in fact, is being asked? Is someone asking me to sign a heavenly petition as though the will of God were based on democracy – the more votes the better the outcome? Of course this would be absurd.
But why do we pray for one another? Indeed, why is this a commandment in Scripture?
I have stated elsewhere that the purpose of all prayer is communion with God. If this is true, then what is being asked of me when I am requested to pray for someone?
On its simplest level intercessory prayer is exactly what it seems – I am praying to God on someone’s behalf. Of course, God already knows of the need, and His will is always for our salvation. We are not instructing God on how the universe should be. Nonetheless we pray – and we are commanded to pray.
In some American circles, Christ’s promises such as, “If you ask anything in my name it will be given you,” are extremely popular. This is a dangerous promise to put in the hands of a consumer-driven culture. The understanding of the statement will almost invariably be focused on the result (“If I do this, then I get this”) and the “in my name” will likely be misunderstood as the operating principle (like a magic formula). Of course, “in my name” is not a magic formula but an invitation to communion. To be “in the name of Jesus” is to be “in Jesus” Himself.
This brings us back to prayer as communion. It is perhaps easiest to understand prayer as communion if you are thinking only of yourself and God. In intercessory prayer there is a third or fourth or even greater element added. How do we understand these added elements within the context of communion?
The Elder Sophrony writes about what he calls “hypostatic prayer,” which, in translated terms would mean something like “personal prayer.” What he means by it, however, is not that we are merely “personally” doing the praying – but rather we are praying in a manner that is “properly” personal in the theological sense. That is, that as person, existing in the image of God, I am praying in a way that extends myself into communion with God and communion with others. This, of course, is simply the work of love within our heart.
Thus to pray in such a manner for someone is not merely to read a name from a list, but to extend oneself, in love, and in that communion of love, to enter into communion with God. One way St. Paul states this is to say, “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Or, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Cor. 12:26).
It is not unusual to read in stories of great spiritual fathers of their awareness (almost on a conscious level and sometimes even conscious) of their spiritual children wherever they may be when they pray for them. This is a great gift from God and not common.
However, on the small scale of our lives, to pray for someone with attention, with a heart that seeks to extend itself in love, is to take our intercession to a deeper level – to seek to gather all of our petitions “into the name of Jesus.”
In my own experience I know that such prayer comes easily when it is on behalf of my wife or my children or a member of their family. It also comes in prayer for the members of my congregation (I am learning this slowly). It is to have as our model of intercession Christ Himself. We see this in His “High-Priestly” prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on behalf of His disciples and for those who would become His disciples through their word. And indeed we see it in His prayer from the Cross, “Father, forgive.”
Ephesians 1:9-11 For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.
This is St. Paul’s great description of God’s eternal purpose. It is also a description of our prayer as we struggle in our meager way to lift our hearts before God.