BRADY COLUMN: Does praying for others really do any good?

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, March 14, 2023

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On a visit to one of the saints of the church, a minister suggested that they might conclude their time together by praying for her recovery. Now in the hospital, the lady had lived a rather full life-at least three score and ten. The quality of her life, however, had diminished considerably. Actually, she possessed little reason or will to continue. So with immediate and total honesty, the saintly woman replied, “You can pray if you want, but I doubt if it will do any good.”

I wonder how many people this woman is speaking for.  I’m talking about people both outside and inside the church. We have prayed for others and our prayers have seemingly gone unanswered.  The late Helmet Thielicke, the renowned German theologian and preacher, empathized with us. He said, “All along the highway of our lives are there not countless grave markers of unanswered prayers.” So often that’s the way we have felt about our prayers for others.

On the other hand, there’s the apostle Paul! Paul has gone through some kind of of terrible experience in Ephesus and has been miraculously delivered.  And without doubt, he believes that his deliverance has been an answer to prayer.  Thus, it is that Paul asked for the continuing prayers of the Corinthians.  He says to them, “You must also help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us in answer to many prayers” (ll Corinthians 1:11).  Our subject is intercessory prayer and like a number of Old Testament characters (Abraham, Moses, Samuel, etc.), Jesus and Paul, I believe in it.

First, intercessory prayer does something good for the ones who pray!  Many times we feel so helpless-that loved one is beyond our reach, somebody is desperately ill, some situation seems hopeless-but we can always pray. Not only is prayer for others our privilege and our duty, but, at times, it is our own salvation. When we pray for others, something happened in us.  We simply cannot authentically pray for others without being constrained to act in their behalf.  As we sincerely hold others before God, family members, friends and even enemies, sooner rather than later, we will be moved to ask “Lord, what would you have me do!  How would you have me become the answer to this prayer?  Do I need to make an apology or extend a kindness or make a phone call or write a letter or refuse to give up or what?

Second, intercessory prayer does something good for the ones prayed for! When the great reformer, Martin Luther, felt particularly strong and happy, he would exclaim, “I feel as if I were being prayed for.” To know that you are being prayed for is a heartening experience.  While criticism tends to push us down, to know that there is someone praying for us is a source of sustaining strength.  As a minister, I have always found it humbling and strengthening to know I am being prayed for.  

And it helps everyone of us to know that.  But what about those who don’t know they are being prayed for! The late William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, helps us here. He says, “When I pray for my friends, coincidences happen to them. When I cease to pray, the coincidences cease.” Perhaps that’s all that needs to be said here.

Third, intercessory prayer does something good in that we cooperate with God! In praying on behalf of others, we are only cooperating with God, entering into partnership with God’s purposes. Lloyd Ogilvie, former chaplain of the United States Senate, stated, “Intercessory prayer is God putting his burdens on our hearts.”  So in praying for others, we are also proving to God that we are also concerned about others and submitting our prayers for purification and correction. Even more than that, in our prayer for others we are actually joining with the Eternal Intercessor in our intercession.  I’ll conclude with some helpful words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer concerning intercessory prayer, “To pray for others is to give them ‘the same right we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in his mercy.’”