Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Does Intercessory Prayer Work?

A lot of people be praying for me today. Maybe not as many as 10 or 25 years ago, but still a lot. For, you see, today is my birthday.
It has been a long-standing practice in the Southern Baptist Convention for churches and especially for individual members to pray for missionaries. And even though we retired from the International Mission Board in 2004, we are still listed on the prayer calendars—in Open Windows, the daily devotional guide booklet, in Missions Mosaic (formerly Royal Service), the monthly journal for members of Woman’s Mission Union (although now retired missionaries are just listed as a group, not by name).
“Missouri Prayerways,” a Baptist publication, has this listing for today: “Give thanks today for the continuing service of Leroy Seat, Retired, Southeast Asia, and that he may realize the joy of seeing growth in those who have believed during his ministry.” I didn’t like it when the prayer calendars started listed areas rather than individual countries for the missionaries; I was a missionary to Japan, not southeast Asia. But I do like their prayer request for today.
June and I were appointed as missionaries to Japan in 1966, so we have been the recipients of intercessory prayer from faithful, mission-minded Southern Baptists for more than 45 years now. And I certainly appreciate all of the prayers offered up on our behalf through the years. But, unfortunately, I don’t have any testimony of “miraculous,” or even extraordinary things, that have happened on our birthdays or immediately after them.
So I raise this question, Does intercessory prayer “work”? The answer, of course, depends on what we mean by “work.” If intercessory prayer means that we change God through our prayers and cause things to happen in the world or in other people’s lives that would otherwise not happen, then, no, intercessory prayer probably doesn’t work.
Intercessory prayer does cause the one who prays to gain awareness of and concern for the object of those prayers. And that is certainly a good thing. So certainly intercessory prayer “works” for the one praying; there are subjective benefits. And that is no small matter.
But this is the main question I am raising: does it have any objective benefits for the person or matter being prayed for? Maybe not.
The theological question, you see, is this: why would the all-loving God change things or do things differently, or better, because of prayer—and even be more likely to do so if there were a lot of prayers or a lot of people praying?
Jesus spoke disparagingly about those who think that they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7). Didn’t he likely think the same thing about those who believe that God will give special consideration to the words of many people?
 
Let me be clear: I am not writing against intercessory prayer. But I do question whether such prayer “works” objectively. Nevertheless, I am sincerely grateful for all the prayers on my behalf today!

14 comments:

  1. Well, I'm writing from a hotel room in Hays, KS. On our way to sociology meetings in Denver. Thanks for the honest appraisal of intercessory prayer. There is of course the possibility that it harms people and religion in this way: People are told incessantly by religious leaders that prayer works, that they should ask God for God's favor, God is listening, and, after all, God wants the best for them. But disappointment and discouragement often result then when God doesn't prevent or stop some terrible tragedy from happening. I suspect we'd be better off if we would refashion our prayers in such a way that we're sharing with God our dreams, hopes, and desires rather than asking God to do something. To say it a little harshly, intercessory praying takes us pretty close to the practices of magic and superstition.

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    1. Anton, thanks for sharing these ideas. You expressed questions about and problems with intercessory prayer more strongly than I did, but I basically agree with what you wrote. I have long thought mistaken ideas about prayer have caused many people to leave the Christian faith (and that may be true for people in other traditions also). And I have also thought that there has often been a mixture of belief in prayer with a magical view of the universe that is ill-informed.

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  2. Intercessory prayer is a version of knowing one is part of a caring and supportive community. It's true for both the prayer and prayee. I prefer not to attempt to separate the spiritual from the psychological benefits that come from the self awareness of such an environment. I'm pretty sure God is in there somewhere.

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    1. Clif, thanks for your comments, and for the emphasis on community. Certainly, I think, God is there in the mix where there is prayer for one another in a community of faith. But what about people outside the community? What about those in poverty, say, in the U.S. and around the world who are not a part of Christian community? Does intercessory prayer for such people do any good objectively?

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    2. If I pray for hungry children in third world countries, I don't believe they will have more to eat as a consequence. However, there's a possibility that it may change me and my actions.

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    3. That, I think, is mainly how intercessory prayer works.

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  3. Many happy returns, Leroy.

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  4. The first e-mail response I received yesterday was from a local Thinking Friend. She wrote,

    "Thanks, Leroy. Intercessory prayer is certainly a puzzle gone unsolved in me. Often I find myself still praying the same juvenile 'gimme' prayers I've prayed since I was a child but not from a sense I could possibly change God's mind. Seems more a ritual like washing your hands before dinner. Puts structure on our thinking so we can keep our thoughts clean and our faith nourished."

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    1. I appreciate the honesty of this Thinking Friend, and several others who wrote yesterday.

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  5. My Thinking Friend in California, who was also a boyhood friend in northwest Missouri, sent the following comments yesterday:

    "I feel a tad different than you on Intercessory Prayer. Since Only God knows the Future and HE asks us to Pray, I think it Benefits both the Prayer and the one being Prayed for. I agree that we probably can`t change God`s mind because HE is the same Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, but isn't it possible that when God looked out into the future and saw what we were praying for and because of that HE didn't change HIS mind; but answered our Prayers because of our Intercessory Prayers?"

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  6. Matthew 15:21-28 is an example where persistence and repeated asking of help from Jesus made a difference. I've heard others use this story as an indication that the number, length and frequency of prayers can make a difference.

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    1. Clif, there are numerous issues in the Bible passage you referred to, but I doubt that it was included in Matthew's Gospel as a teaching about prayer. (I don't doubt, though, that some have used that story in the way you indicated.)

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  7. A Thinking Friend in Indonesia wrote,

    "Indeed our prayer doesn't change God and His will towards us. But I believe that our prayer does change and make our relationship with God and others BETTER!"

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