I notice it quite a bit on Facebook these days: someone solicits prayer for a friend or family member in their “What’s on your mind?” box.
And why not? If you’ve got “friends” out there, a bunch or a few, it seems reasonable — desirable, even, prudent and expedient — to recruit them to the cause, to ask them to pray for someone you love, someone in need — perhaps critical, desperate need.
But I also notice — and not just on Facebook — that an implicit theological conviction often accompanies such requests: The more people we can rally to pray for this person or that cause, the better our chances that God will hear our prayer and be moved to act in our favor.
And so the hustle begins — in both senses of that word: we scramble, hurry, hasten to enlist lots of pray-ers; and we (thus) pressure God to give us what we want. Of course, we don’t think of our actions as hustling or pressuring God, but the unspoken idea seems to be that if we bother all these nice people and ask them to pray really, really hard, God will have to do something. He’ll just have to. (And it is a “he” we usually have in mind: the divine male arbiter/judge who, with arms folded firmly across his chest, needs to be moved to compassion by our persistent begging).
We don’t ever say it quite this way, of course, which is why it’s an implicit belief rather than an explicit one. But it’s troubling nonetheless for what it assumes about the nature of prayer and the nature of God.
Intercessory prayer, like any other kind of prayer, is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. Yet this doesn’t seem quite right to us in our bureaucratized world of efficiency and market exchanges. You put something in, you expect something in return. Like a kind of cosmic vending machine, God is supposed to deliver the goods. When God doesn’t, we scramble for explanations, resorting usually to well-worn pieties that do not explain or console: “Well, God must have wanted her in heaven” or “we just can’t know the ways of the Almighty.”
But to pray for others — people we know and those we don’t — is not to try and wheedle something from an inscrutable God. Rather, it is to acknowledge our powerlessness, our grief, our anger, our despair. It is to remember our creatureliness and that of those we pray for; namely, that we are not God and that God cannot be used. It is, above all, I think, an act that binds us together in community and solidarity with those we pray for and with all who suffer.
Rowan Williams suggests that, at its simplest, intercession is “thinking of something or someone in the presence of God.” But how pointless this can seem. How futile and how disconnected from the realities in which people suffer and grieve. But it is precisely in the struggle to hold together what seems incongruous and irreconcilable (the love of God and, say, a spouse’s cancer-ravaged body) that we come to know that “there is no place where the love of God can’t go” (Williams).
Our prayers for others summon us to a deeper engagment with the world. We do not intercede for others as vaguely disinterested bystanders; intercession is not a utilitarian act of passively putting in a request and waiting idly for a simple yes or no (the vending-machine God again). Intercession implicates us, draws us in, entangles us in the work of healing and restoration and in the lives of the people for whom we pray. Prayer and action are inextricably linked.
When we imagine that we must summon an army of “prayer warriors” to move God to pity and compassion — again, an understandable impulse in the midst of illness and uncertainty — we can mistakenly assume that God is some sort of negotiator we’ve got to bargain with to get what we want.
(And don’t we know, intuitively, that if amassing great numbers of people to pray is what it takes to get our prayers answered, then this kind of God is hardly worthy of our worship? As a kid, I remember wondering about the people who didn’t have anyone to pray for them. Were they automatically doomed? Only the popular people get healed? Too bad if you’re friendless in this world).
But this kind of God — one who must be haggled with, cajoled into action — is not the God whom Christians believe entered the human plane in weakness and vulnerability, and who, even now, bears the suffering of the world. This is what we confess: There is no place in our godforsakenness that God, in and through the cross of Christ, hasn’t already been. “Only the suffering God can help,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his Nazi prison cell.
So we pray. Not to get something from God but to hold up to the light of divine mercy our brokenness and the brokenness of others, trusting in the mystery of a suffering love that will never — no matter what happens — let us go.