It is no surprise that the sequester controversy has individuals, businesses and other organizations coming out of the woodwork in protest. Naturally, many are advocates for their own interests. After all, innumerable jobs and services are on the massive chopping block.
Advocates like these are driven by concerns about their personal welfare than threats that might not seem so personal -— national defense and economic growth (or decline), for instance. Understandably, they are concerned for the health of a business or service and fear threats to such enterprises. It is appropriate to be concerned about family, friends and neighbors faced with losing their livelihood.
But now is a time in the life of the nation for citizens to be more circumspect and equally concerned about the plight of others. Such awareness and compassion are at the heart of what believers refer to as intercession. It is not strictly a Christian or religious term but believers value intercession and regularly ask each other to exercise what we call intercessory prayer.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary references this in one of its definitions for intercession: “prayer, petition or entreaty in favor of another.” However, the first definition the dictionary lists is “the act of interceding.”
At its best, a prayer of intercession is an act of voluntarism. It includes a voiced prayer with a desire for God to act on behalf of the stated cause by whatever means he chooses. As often as not, God’s choice is to call the interceder herself or himself to physically become an agent for not only identifying the intercessory need and voicing it, but helping to resolve it.
To protect our own interests and the interests of our family and others close to us, most of us would place calls, contribute funds, perhaps join in a demonstration or protest, or engage in other actions. We would not be very loyal family members or friends if we did not.
It is not that we do not pray for the needs of others. We frequently voice such prayers, often with great emotion.
Too often, however, we treat intercessory prayer as an exercise in filling out God’s to-do list for heavenly response. We pray for unemployed family or friends as if it is God’s duty to miraculously provide jobs for them. We pray for children in poverty and without appropriate food as if God will simply, though miraculously, fill their stomachs. We pray for someone who is undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, for someone recovering from injury or someone getting worse from the effects of Alzheimers. Sometimes we ask God to heal them or, at the very least, to be ever-present with them over the course of their malady.
God is pleased when we call upon him on behalf of others. But he must broaden his smile when we do so in the voluntary spirit of reporting for duty.
For instance, we might pray fervently for people and their specific needs with the commitment: “And help me (or us) find ways to assist them.”
Intercessory concern might mean responding personally or participating in a broader effort that might help even more people.
For example, Bread for the World is a highly regarded and influential organization that focuses efforts upon influencing Christians to address hunger and poverty.
By its own description, “Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. By changing policies, programs and conditions that allow hunger and poverty to persist, we provide help an opportunity far beyond the communities where we live…. By making our voices heard in Congress, we make our nation’s laws more fair and compassionate to people in need.”
Bread’s annual “Offering of Letters” emphasis is one way people concerned for the least of these in the United States and abroad can influence balanced government spending that can help eradicate hunger and poverty domestically and abroad. (For more information, go to bread.org.)
Churches and denominational groups focus a good bit of energy on being the hands and feet of God in the world through strategies, initiatives, ministries and offerings that engage members and others in heartfelt, vigorous and diligent response to human need.
Intercession is more than a simple prayer exercise; it is more than simply turning a matter over to God. It is joining God in his work of regeneration and reconciliation. It is putting compassion to the test. It is the surrender attitude of Isaiah, the prophet of old, who volunteered, “Here am I. Send me!”
Jesus set the standard for intercession by praying powerfully for people in difficult circumstances and by practicing the act of interceding by befriending, healing, protecting, defending, forgiving, grieving, feeding and in being the consummate Good Samaritan.
His intercession ultimately took him to the cross, where he gave up his life only to gain it back. Intercession is always a powerful act for Christ-followers who choose to retrace the Lord’s steps.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.