Intercession and holiness Prof. Raymond Chapman
Intercession raises more questions than any other aspect of prayer. Although the idea of asking or supplication is the root meaning of the word ‘prayer’ itself, some spiritual writers have regarded it as inferior to praise, thanksgiving and penitence. Yet Scripture has many instances of intercessory prayer, including the precept and example of our Lord himself.
The awkward questions are mostly about ‘results’ – was the prayer ‘answered’, has there been a positive effect, are we trying to change the Will of God? Informed Christians know that not getting exactly what one wants does not mean that God is indifferent. Intercession offers our hopes and fears within his wisdom, not a specific asking but rather the holding up of a need.
Private intercession is not directed only outward; it can also be a means of grace and deeper charity. This is the view of William Law (1686-1761), who was deprived on refusing the Oath of Allegiance to George I and became a nonjuror. In his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) he takes a high view of intercession:
A frequent intercession with God, earnestly beseeching him to forgive the sins of all mankind, to bless them with his providence, enlighten them with his Spirit, and bring them to everlasting happiness, is the divinest exercise that the heart of man can be engaged in.’
Intercession is not commended only as concerned with the welfare of others. It is part of the quest for holiness, an Anglican
tradition which today is in danger of being lost in the mist of vague spirituality’:
‘Be daily, therefore, on your knees, in a solemn deliberate performance of this devotion, praying for others in such forms, with such length, importunity, and earnestness, as you use for yourself; and you will find all little ill-natured passions die away, your heart grow great and generous, delighting in the common happiness of others, as you used only to delight in your own.’
But intercession must not become introspective and concerned only with its effect on the one who prays. Law also looks to the practical results. Through sincere intercession we shall grow in charity, and desire the good of others:
‘He that daily prays to God, that all men may be happy in Heaven, takes the likeliest way to make him wish for, and delight in their happiness on earth. And it is hardly possible for you to beseech and entreat God to make any one happy in the highest enjoyments of his glory to all eternity, and yet be troubled to see him enjoy the much smaller gifts of God in this short and low state of human life. [.. . ] When therefore you have once habituated your heart to a serious performance of this holy intercession, you have done a great deal to render it incapable of spite and envy, and to make it naturally delight in the happiness of all mankind.’
Whether in the Prayer for the Church Militant or the free intercessions of modern liturgies, the general and the particular are united in faith: ‘This is the natural effect of a general intercession for all mankind. But the greatest benefits of it are then received, when it descends to such particular instances as our state and condition in life more particularly require of us.’
Let us offer our personal intercessions in confidence, trusting that they are accepted and perfected through Christ, our great Intercessor.