“I look at God, I look at you, and I keep looking at God.” —Julian of Norwich
The practice of intercessory prayer has been a hard one for me to incorporate into my life as a leader because the way it was taught early in my Christian experience made it seem so weighty and burdensome. It often involved elaborate lists for praying around the world (in thirty days or less), promises made that were very hard to keep (“I’ll pray for you”), and thinking really hard about what to pray for (since clearly God wouldn’t know what to do for the person I was praying for unless I told him!).
As time went on, there was a different problem that emerged. When it came to the difficult experiences that are part and parcel of life in leadership—criticism, complaining, subtle jealousies and other kinds of bad behavior—I noticed that my first response was generally not to pray for those who persecuted me or otherwise tried to vote me off the island. I had a variety of preferred responses ranging from fight to flight, and none of them included intercessory prayer! And yet, it is impossible to ignore the significance of intercessory prayer in the lives of leaders like Moses.
The Original Tent Meeting
For one thing, it was during Moses’ times of intercession that God gave him specific guidance for how to stay faithful to his calling in the midst of whatever he was going through, and he usually emerged with specific guidance for the community. In fact, the people of Israel had come to look forward to receiving a word from the Lord through Moses with such anticipation that there was an entire ritual enacted around Moses’ regular times of entering into God’s presence.
There was a special place outside the camp called “the tent of meeting” that was set aside for prayer and seeking God. It was available to everyone who sought the Lord; however, when Moses went to the tent of meeting, it was something of a national holiday. As the Scriptures describe it,
“Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:8-11)
How it must have shaped the Israelite journey to experience this kind of awe and reverence when Moses entered into solitude to be present to God on behalf of those he had been given to lead and love. Whether they always agreed with him or not, what a difference it must have made to know that he was seeking a word from the Lord for them. And how it must have shaped Moses’ own soul to continually carry the people into God’s presence and listen for the kind of wisdom that can only come from a divine source!
Knowing and Not Knowing
A leader’s own journey into solitude and silence can have a profound effect on the way we pray for others—or at least it has for me. As I have deepened my capacity to “be with what is” in God’s presence and have learned more about how to wait for God’s deliverance in my own life, it has not only changed my approach to praying for others—it has changed my understanding of what intercessory prayer actually is!
I realize now that intercessory prayer is not primarily about thinking I know what someone else needs and trying to wrestle it from God. Rather, it is being present to God on another’s behalf, listening for the prayer of the Holy Spirit that is already being prayed for that person before the throne of grace. It is being willing to join God in that prayer.
I have learned that intercessory prayer is more about not knowing than it is about knowing. It is about growing more and more comfortable with the truth found in Romans 8—that I do not know how to pray as I ought, for myself or anyone else, and accepting the fact that the Holy Spirit is the one who really knows how to pray. It is about believing that the Holy Spirit is already interceding for that person or that situation. As I enter into the stillness of true prayer, it is enough to experience my own groaning about the situation or person I am concerned about and to sense the Spirit’s groaning on their behalf.
Rosemary Dougherty describes the intercessory prayer stance in this way: “The attitude of intercessory prayer is a willingness to enter into God’s prayer in us, the caring love of God for ourselves, for others. In this place of prayer, we become sensitized to God’s unique invitations to us as participants in that love. We may be called to let go of some of our vested interests and our traditional ways of caring for other people. Presence and absence, silence and words, doing and not doing all become relativized against the backdrop of God’s prayer in us.”
All of sudden, intercessory prayer is not as burdensome as it once was.
As God Brings You to Mind
I have also become more thoughtful about how I use prayer lists. Now, as I sit quietly in God’s presence daily, I seek to be open to whomever God brings to my mind and heart. As individuals or situations come into my awareness, I consciously invite them into that place where God’s Spirit and my spirit are communing, and we sit together with that person. I don’t feel burdened by the need to figure anything out or to say words that indicate I somehow have a handle on the situation, or even know what is needed. It is enough to hold them in the love, the rest and the care of God and to trust God’s love for them.
If words do come or if there is something I want to ask for regarding their situation, I certainly feel free to say this to God, but there is no pressure to do so. Most times there is nothing for me to do or say except to hold the people and situations that are of concern to me in God’s presence and listen.
Sometimes there will be some words of wisdom, a bit of guidance, some action God invites me to take relative to that person or situation, but this is always something that is given—not something I have had to grasp for or work really hard to get. If nothing comes, then I don’t do or say anything—no matter how tempted I feel to assuage my anxiety by trying to make something happen. If the words aren’t there, I don’t say or do anything. If the words are there—perhaps God brings a Scripture, a word, an action or next step—then I seek to be faithful to what I have heard.
If someone asks me to pray for them, I promise them that I will do so as God brings them to mind, which leaves the responsibility in God’s hands, not mine. As long as I am creating time and space to be in God’s presence on behalf of others, I am confident that God, in his love, will bring those people to me during such times.
The Way of Peace
In a leader’s life there is no end to the people and situations that need our prayer and concern. On some days the needs of those we love and lead, as well as the situations we find ourselves in together, can feel crushing. The encouraging news I can share with you today is that over time, this kind of intercessory prayer practice has become a source of great peace and rest in my own life in leadership. Rather than the more effortful prayer practices that depend upon considerable human thought and striving, these days I am much more confident that I am actually allowing God to guide me into the prayers that are mine to pray.
As Gordon Cosby, who founded Church of the Savior in Washington, DC and was faithful to his calling in that community for over fifty years, put it: “When my consciousness [awareness] reaches up to God, and out to a person whom God loves, I yearn for them to be together. As I hold them together in my imagination, as I hold them in the orbit of my love, I am engaging in intercessory prayer.”
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, and Longing for More.
How do you experience intercessory prayer?