Intercessory Prayer

February 16, 2007

My upcoming dissertation at ASU is going to be about religious health and healing in the U.S.-Mexico border region. I plan to look especially at Catholic folk saints, Mexican folk healing (“curanderismo”), pilgrimage, shrines, promises to Guadaluple and other saints, and–perhaps most applicable to my own Presbyterian tradition–interessory prayer.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, intercessory prayer is the type of prayer that asks God to intercede in human affairs. As a pastor, I can attest that the overwhelming percentage of prayer requests I receive in and out of the worship service are for the health and healing of loved ones. Most Christians believe that God answers these prayers with real action.

Now, there is a whole lot of studying to do about this. First, there are official theologies that teach the basic parameters of this kind of prayer. In our Reformed tradition, intercessory prayer is a thorny issue because given God’s absolute sovereignty and the resultant belief in predestination, we humans are not in a very good position to affect God in any way. However, we believe God loves us and cares for us, and I suppose this means that God is responsive to our requests.

Second, there are the actual popular beliefs concerning intercessory prayer. In these beliefs (and practices) Christians profess that God grants favors, or withdraws support. Often God’s actions are dependent on the holiness and sincerity of the petitioners. Some pastors and faithful people pooh pooh these kinds of beliefs as little more than pie-eyed acceptance of magical thinking. Maybe so, but understanding the cultural logics that underlie these beliefs and practices will be very important to my research and analysis.

Third, there are those who claim that intercessory prayer is mostly a social event in which the body of believers support each other mutually and publically. The miraculous, if you will, is in the sharing of love and concern under the aegis of faith in a merciful God. This particular way of looking at intercessory prayer is not as common as one might think, but I think it is the contention of many liberal pastors (including myself). In my experience, though, most people think that their petitions actually lead to God’s action. (A common piece of folk wisdom, now perhaps cliché, is that when what you ask for doesn’t come to pass, God did respond, just in the negative.)

Naturally, the whole issue of why God would heal some and not others immediately emerges in this discussion. One of my early hypotheses is that petitioning saints (in the Catholic tradition) allows one to escape some of the least palatable aspects of dealing with an unsearchable God. Saints, being human, are more accessible, and their caprices concerning granting petitions is more understandable.

So, if you make intercessions to God or a saint, what do you think is happening? Do you think you are capable of influencing God’s behavior? If so, why? Hey, if you give a good enough answer, maybe you’ll end up in my dissertation!


16 Responses to “Intercessory Prayer”

  1. Alex Says:

    Why is the third view a liberal view? It doesn’t seem particularly liberal (i.e. think whatever you want), it seems pretty Reformed/Orthodox in my estimation.

  2. sheepdays Says:

    Maybe there’s nothing inherently liberal in thinking that intercessory prayer fulfills more of a social function than the idea that it makes God do this or that. But, it is liberal, in the classical sense of the word, to focus more on human capabilities than not. Since I know you, and we’ve talked about this a lot, I know that this is not where you stand concerning prayer. I know that you have a very nuanced understanding of how prayer works in a community of believers. I guess I was implying that the radical and supernatural claims of the other two views point specifically to a non-humanist perspective whereas the third view I articulated might not. In any case, these three ideas of prayer are not pure categories. They overlap, and there are more ways to understand prayer than just these.

  3. Dave Bonta Says:

    This is a fascinating subject for a dissertation. I once researched and wrote a book-length poem about the African “conquistador” Esteban’s visit to the region in 1539, and came to see him as a prototypical curandero: half medicine-man, half faith healer. I won’t inflict the poem on you; I simply bring it up by way of making the point that I’m very interested in this subject and eager to see what you uncover.

    In my own spiritual life, such as it is, I don’t use intercessory prayer, being too much of a fatalist I guess. I want to believe in magical thinking, but I find I cannot.

  4. Charles Says:

    Good morning,

    I want to respond thouroughly to this post but I need much more coffee and maybe even a couple of days reflection on the question. FASCINATING! I’ve GOT to the see the end result of all your work.

  5. sheepdays Says:

    Dave, is the poem you mentioned “Cibola”? I’ve seen the link to it on Via Negativa. Esteban (Estevanico) is an intriguing figure. I’m guessing you’ve read Cabeza de Vaca’s Castaways. Some very interesting stuff about healing in there. Part of my thesis will be that contact zones between cultures provide an especially rich religious environment that for some reason (that I will discover and thus become famous) seem to produce a lot of healers. Re: Fatalism. Fatalism can be pretty comforting, in a fatalistic sort of way.

    Hi Charles. I hope you’re patient if you want to see the fruits of my research. When I say “upcoming” dissertation, I mean that it is yet a twinkle in my eye. I haven’t even started it yet and probably won’t for another year. I’ve got to finish up my coursework and take my comprehensive exams first. But, I hope to discuss the research process on this blog.

  6. Dave Bonta Says:

    Cibola, yes. Actually Marcos de Niza plays a big role in it too. I followed a revisionist historian, Daniel T. Reff, who believes that Marcos didn’t actively lie about what he saw, but merely had an overactive imagination and a very poor grasp of geography. At any rate, you’re right about contact zones, I think. And your area has been a good example of that for a very long time, it seems.

  7. Chris Says:

    C. S. Lewis gives a challenging musing. Of prayer (especially intercessory prayer) he said it “doesn’t change God; it changes me.”

    In the Reformed tradition, you might want to investigate the interrelationship between the eternal decrees of God (whereby all things God wills are infallibly brought to pass) and the providence of God (whereby means – secondary, tertiary, ktl). That’s where Reformed folks look to reaffirm the personal responsiveness of God who makes use of us in the Sovreign plan.

  8. sheepdays Says:

    Thanks, Chris, for your comment. I’d say, purely from the Lewis’s quote, that he falls most clearly into category 3: Prayer fulfills a social function and does not affect God. This is surprising given Lewis’s evangelical appeal.

    You’re surely right about Reformed theology and intercessory prayer. However, most Reformed folks as I know them do not actually believe or practice the official theology of the Reformed tradition. Now, before anyone claims that this is a big problem that must be rectified by better pastoral and denominational leadership, let me say here that that is not really my topic. I’m interested in what people actually believe and do. I wonder as a scholar: Why is it that the Reformed understanding of intercessory prayer is so unappealing and unsuccessful among actual Reformed people?

    And I should add that this breakdown between official theologies and actual practices definitely applies to the Catholic Church, which is more central to my studies. The Catholic position on the intercession of the saints, for example, is miles away from the actual power-brokering that goes on in daily borderlands Catholic practice.

  9. Alex Says:


    Brett is a Presbyterian pastor. He has read C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s work is interesting for theological discussions, but is not really appropriate for secular research regarding intercessory prayer.


  10. Charles Says:

    I think Biblical evidence indicates that intercession, rather than “asking God to intercede in human affairs,” is really humanity boldly stepping in and trying to intercede in God’s plans and providence.

    One of the earliest examples that I can think of is when Abraham learns that Sarah is going to get pregnant and that she would be the mother of nations and kings, he steps up and asks God to accept Ishmael for that role. God says no. (Gen 17)

    Of course, the more famous OT example of intercession, which was really a negotiation, is the Gen 18 record of Abraham, God and Sodom.

    I’m also reminded of Job saying “O that a man might plead with God as a man with his neighbor!” (Job 16:21)

    To intercede is to stand before God as an advocate for another. My own folks often do not differentiate between intercession and supplication, which I understand is to stand before God as an advocate for oneself.

    I want to share with you an experience that has recently given me a different perspective on intercession. Leading in intercessory prayers, particularly in pastoral care situations is a regular occurance in my life and work. Beholding the power of intercessory prayers on my behalf is a new experience for me.

    Right after Thanksgiving, I noticed a small lump under my jawline when trimming my beard. I didn’t think much of it because it didn’t hurt and I’d had mumps when I was a grade schooler. Trimming the next week, I realized it was bigger so I went to the doc. I had no symptoms, no pain, felt totally normal aside from the accustomed aggravations from MS. He said no big deal, lets just watch it. Two weeks later, still no problems but it was getting large enough to be noticable — almost golf ball size.

    Doc want to play it safe so he orders an CT later in the week. The morning of the CTI, I notice a new lump under the clavical while showering. The manager of the imaging department at the local hospital is a church member and a good friend so I asked him to extend the scan down far enough to include the new lump. Results from the CT…can’t rule out malignancy, Hodgkins or non-Hodgkins lymphoma suspected. New CT ordered for the gut and pelvis. That CT lit up like a Las Vegas sign showing buggaboos all up and down my left side.

    Needle biopsy is ordered…Doc says not so much to determine if its cancer…he’s all but sure…but to determine what type so it can be decided where I need to go for treatment. Needle biopsy is non-diagnostic. That’s good isn’t it? says I. The doc just looks grey.

    Excisional biopsy is ordered for the next day. By this time, folks I know who are located literally all over the country know what my family and I are facing and intercessions are taking place.

    It takes three weeks to get the results back, the docs are making contingency plans…this cancer clinic if it’s this type of cancer, this other clinic would be better if its the other variety. When everything came back negative, all of the docs involved were floored…they wanted them double checked…how could they be so mistaken?

    Bottom line…I simply don’t know whether intercession resulted in something beyond the natural taking place or if several very experienced and intelligent physicians just got it wrong…I’ll take it either way.

    What 20+ years of ministry experiences has taught me to this point is that we are quite locked in to a 4 dimensional, space-time perspective of what is possible. In my public intercessory prayers, it is typical for me to pray something like this: “Father, we have faith that, in ways impossible for us to understand, You have the power to effect a new direction in the natural course of this person’s affliction for your glory’s sake.” I consider it completely plausible that God sometimes supernaturally effects new direction in a natural course of events to that His transcendence and immanence can be demonstrated.

  11. Alex Says:


    Thank you so much for sharing this. I really appreciate your perspective. Very illuminating.

    Blessings and peace.

  12. sheepdays Says:

    Charles, what a spell-binding and beautiful experience. Thanks for bringing it to this forum. I appreciate very much that you began the post with some biblical theology. That you see Sodom as a negotiation is very insightful–this continues to be very common today.

    I consider it completely plausible that God sometimes supernaturally effects new direction in a natural course of events so that His transcendence and immanence can be demonstrated.

    My personal experiences corroborate this statement even though such attention from the Almighty feels frightening to me at times.
    This morning in church, I was asked publicly to pray for the grand-daughter of a church member. The girl is on drugs and has run away and in so doing has broken a juvenile probation order. A warrant is out for her arrest. I spent considerable time in the intercessory prayer asking for very specific things. I asked God to intervene in this girl’s life, to impress God’s love on her consciousness, and to return her to her family. In the moment, I was not thinking of research or this post or anything else. Only afterwords, I realized that, despite my lingering reservations and questions about what intercessions actually do, I practice intercession in the way of my community. I ask God for tangible, practical, things and actions. I don’t merely ask for God to fit me into God’s will in a gracious and infallible way; I don’t ask for God to teach me that the miracle of prayer is in the asking; I ask for God to intervene in this disaster we call life. I have no doubt that this conviction is what has gotten me interested in my heart in the subject of my research.
    Thanks again for your comment, and I hope (and pray) that you continue to get negative results on your biopsies.

  13. Charles Says:

    I am grateful that your question has motivated me to think more deeply about intercession.

    I question that rises immediately to my mind upon reading of the granddaughter of your church member…How are the dynamics of intercession different when interceding with God on behalf of one who’s decisions as an active, free agent before God are a major component of a “successful outcome”? (I hate the word successful. I wish I could think of a way to put that better but it’s late here.)

  14. cheryl Says:

    Please pray for me, and my physical, and spiritual health. Many scary health issues including need to lose 40pounds…PLEASE pray for me..
    Thankyou, and God Bless
    Remember also my Dad George, and daughter Tammy. Dad is in a severe depression. My daughter Tammy is trying to concieve and hasn’t been able too. : (

  15. Cheryl Says:

    Please pray for my friend Brad M., 33, High Point, NC. He is a lost soul and is not saved and does not believe in living a holy life. He’s under the darkness of Satan, Satan is in disguise and he cannot see the sin that is in his life. Please pray that he will be set free by, and that the power of Satan will be broken once and forever. In Jesus Name,Amen.

  16. Katarina Says:

    Please, support me in prayers for an urgent, difficult intention:

    For my complete reconciliation with my loved one, ex fiance NEBOJSA


    THAT GOD DESTROY ALL DEVILS AND WEAPONS FORMED AGAINST OUR RELATIONSHIP IN THE NAME OF JESUS ACCORDING TO HIS WILL, protect our love and future (that our relationship be stronger and successful one) and bring us to marriage as soon as possible!

    God gives promises, and I know He is FAITHFUL!

    I am sure when your prayers join mine will surely receive a miracle. I am praying with Faith and please help me in this.

    Thank you very much. God bless you. I pray for you. Praise the Lord for He hear prayers and answer on it.


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