Samuel Chadwick claimed, “The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”
One great mystery of the relationship between Christ and His church is that He involves us in His purposes. He has chosen to work through us rather than around us. This is how we understand prayer. The release of His power comes as we partner with Him, around His will, in prayer and intercession.
Unfortunately, many spiritual leaders are more known for their external activity than their internal prayerfulness. We pray too little and work too much. Paul’s concern at the end of his letter to the Ephesians is the same daunting issue that faces today’s church — our capacity to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” to “stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:10,11). Paul asserts that our real enemy is not people who annoy us, oppose us, or even kill us. We transact our real war in unseen realms against sinister forces, “against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (verse 12).
We do not win wars such as these through conflict resolution or strategic planning alone. As helpful as those activities are, they do not engage the power structures resident in spiritual realms. Taken alone, they are about as effective as attacking armored tanks with peashooters. So the apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (Ephesians 6:13).
Paul then links each piece of armor to essential gospel realities such as salvation, truth, righteousness, faith, Word, and readiness (verses 14–17). These pieces of armor function through the power of the Holy Spirit and, taken together, this armor “of God” is spiritually potent — both offensively and defensively.
But Paul is not done. He then imbeds“putting on” our spiritual armor into an “all occasions” assignment: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (verse 18). What is it that harnesses the spiritual potency of each piece of armor? What ties each piece together into a potent, unified, wearable whole? What is the one foundational activity that is common to every victory in the unseen realms? It is prayer — “in the Spirit,” of “all kinds,” and on behalf of “all the saints.”
A.C. Dixon, pastor of Spurgeon’s Tabernacle, observed, “When we rely on organization, we get what organization can do; when we rely on education, we get what education can do; when we rely on eloquence, we get what eloquence can do. But when we rely on prayer, we get what God can do.”
It is ultimately “what God can do” that gives us any hope of standing our ground in the spiritual battle around us and against us. Paul’s Ephesians 6:18 assertion is that we can prevail if our circumstances, experiences, conflicts, and struggles are all bathed in ongoing, “on all occasions … for all the saints,” prayer.
Paul is specifically calling us to “intercessory” kinds of praying. This is praying that is engaged “in the Spirit” but focused on the needs of “all the saints.” Intercession is taking up faith-filled prayer on behalf of others, as if calling out to God in their stead. Remarkably, God actually postures himself to respond to that kind of “proxy” praying. Intercession thereby paves the way for God’s intervention in other people’s lives and circumstances.
I had a taste of the power of intercessory prayer when I was a college student. My junior year I transferred to the University of Minnesota to study engineering. I started attending a small Chi Alpha ministry on campus. By the end of that year I had become the leader, more or less by default. A year later I had shrunk the group from a dozen down to three. My calling into engineering seemed confirmed.
But one day Steve, one of the two other students, said, “Maybe we should pray and fast.” That would seem to be the logical thing to do. But when he said those words, something happened in my spirit that, to this day, I have trouble describing. It was like God gripped my heart and started squeezing it. For the next several months I was overcome by with a life-consuming hunger for God. At times it would take my hunger for food away for days. Instead, I was driven to prayer, whether it was between classes, during meals, or late at night.
Sometimes all I could do was lie on my face on the floor and groan. I was 21 years old and had never experienced anything like this before. Today it seems clear that I was in some small way experiencing the groaning of God’s heart over the spiritual darkness on that campus. The intensity of that season lifted somewhat after several months, but a hungry prayerfulness continued on in me for the next year and a half. Our student group also grew back up to 12 or 15 people during that time, but mainly with people who wanted to pray.
Then the breakthrough came — overnight and without warning. It was a normal Tuesday evening Chi Alpha service, halfway through the fall semester of my second year of graduate school. I was expecting to see about a dozen students show up that night. Instead, there were over 60. They came in small clusters of friends from different places, but all on the same night.
More important, the Spirit of God came powerfully in that meeting. God did what I was unable to do in all of my best efforts. Soon the group was nearly 100 in size. I can trace my own journey into full-time ministry after graduating 3 1/2 years later back to the breakthrough that God gave us that night. Intercessory travail led to the birth of a whole new season of God’s purpose.
Intercessors understand God’s seasons and promises and heart. They also understand that spiritual conflict demands a prayerful fight. Intercessory prayer is the act of yearning for God’s intervention and calling forth His life-giving power in the places where the enemy has brought destruction and loss. So Paul calls us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions … for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT INTERCESSORS
Unfortunately, stereotypes and misconceptions abound when it comes to intercessory people. Paul’s intention in Ephesians 6 was for every believer to “pray in the Spirit … for all the saints.” But the 21st-century church in the West has tended to marginalize such people. We often brand people who do intercede a lot in the Spirit as emotional, mystical, and unstable. They can seem like “spiritual oddities” in a world full of “naturally normal” Christians. So we tend to label and compartmentalize such people, all the while exempting ourselves from the potential of a deeper life in prayer and weakening our defenses against the enemy.
A misconception is that intercessors always feel like praying, or at least find it easy. It is true that the more we pray, the more we will want to pray; and the less we pray, the less we will want to. It is also true that there are times, like the one I described during my senior year in college, when God gives unusual ability to pray in very travailing, connecting ways.
But the act of praying “for all the saints” is a command we must follow and a choice we must make, even though it is not always easy. Because prayer brings us into the arena of spiritual conflict, it is not uncommon to experience significant resistance, fatigue, and discouragement as we engage in prayer. True intercession can also take its toll on us both physically and emotionally, even though it strengthens us spiritually.
Obviously, it is the decision to pray that is crucial, not feeling like it, or finding it easy. Neither is it hypocritical to pray if we do not feel like it. God is there regardless of our emotional condition. He is faithful even when we feel weary or unengaged. He is not weakened by what weakens us. Nothing of Him changes. The issue is not how we feel, but what His Spirit can do to engender in us faith and hunger for Him as we simply, by choice, give ourselves to intercessory prayer.
GUIDELINES FOR INTERCESSION
Here is a short list of things I have found helpful for growing in intercession.
Give God time. More than anything else, God needs us to give Him time — time to be before Him and enough time for Him to give us His heart. On many occasions I have begun times of prayer not feeling very spiritual or motivated. Rather than crumpling under pressure or guilt, I would simply begin praying in tongues, letting the Spirit pray through me. Or I would take Scripture and begin praying it back to God. Or I would deliberately start to pray for specific needs. With time God’s heart would begin taking hold of my otherwise cold heart. It sometimes felt like I was starting “in the flesh” only to end up “in the Spirit.” But it takes time. Start small and let it grow from there. Time with God will lead to our hearts being bent to His, yielding the inevitable desire to spend even more time with Him.
Stand on the merits of Christ’s blood alone. Often at the heart of our spiritual insecurity is self-condemnation, afflicting us with a debilitating sense of unworthiness. Often people find that this feeling becomes more pronounced as they move deeper into effective intercession. It comes with spiritual warfare and is totally contrary to the gospel. I have frequently asserted by faith, in spite of my feelings, that I base my standing before God solely on Christ’s shed blood, not my impressiveness or self-righteousness. In Christ (not me) “we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12).
Focus on the Spirit’s help. A friend once described his journey into intercession this way: “I used to start praying by first looking inside myself for the desire and strength to pray. It only pulled me down. But I decided to start my times of prayer by looking upward instead of inward, asking the Holy Spirit to come and teach me to pray. It changed everything.”
The Holy Spirit can, indeed, teach us to pray, and we have the privilege of listening to the Holy Spirit as we do pray. This is not all up to us. No wonder Paul calls us in Ephesians 6 to pray “in the Spirit.”
Keep prayer God-centered rather than problem-centered. Starting prayer with praise is so important. For a season I avoided extended prayer because I did not feel the energy to revisit all the discouraging circumstances and situations that needed prayer. I was focusing on the greatness of the problems rather than the greatness of God. I would finish 30 minutes of prayer more depressed than when I started. But prevailing intercession focuses on God’s promises and provision, by faith, more than it concentrates on how overwhelming the need is. Great intercessors often spend more time adoring God than asking Him for things.
Blend specific requests with spiritual travail. Keep a prayer list and have a prayer journal to record specific requests and answers. James 4:2 reminds us that the lack of specific answers is often the result of overly generalized praying. However, intercession sometimes takes us past prayer-list praying and into heart-gripping encounters with the grief, passion, and love of God’s heart. The result may be interceding in tongues, weeping, and even groaning in spiritual travail. Be open to this, praying through to God’s heart and allowing His Spirit to pray God’s heart through you. At this point in intercession for others, we may also find ourselves actually pushing back against demonic powers and their purposes as they have attached themselves to the people and situations we are praying for.
GRASS ON OUR PATH
Intercessory prayer “for all the saints” is incredibly potent, and we must reclaim it as a top priority. At the 2010 Lausanne III conference in South Africa, a Pentecostal pastor from Kenya told the story of the East African revival of 50 years ago. During that time people would walk well-worn pathways to prayer huts and places of intercession in the forest. When Christians slipped away from prayer, their friends would notice by the condition of their paths and gently encourage each other: “Brother, I see grass is growing on your path.”
As God’s people, engaged in spiritual battle, may the grass never grow on our pathways to prayer.