Intercessory Prayer: Doubt and Faith and Amy

Intercessory Prayer: A prayer offered on behalf of another.

In the On Fire days, “battle” was our defining metaphor, and everything smacked of weapon and warfare. Even (especially) prayer. There were Principalities to be defeated and an Enemy at large, and we prayed fiercely against it, shot words into the darkness like arrows.

I remember praying a lot in those days for revival. I didn’t pray so much for specific people as against the vague forces I perceived around me. Drugs and suicide and alcohol and lust: things I knew little-to-nothing about as I sat, cross-legged, among Christians.

It all felt heady and important and great. There was a sense that in prayer, we were harnessing the power of God like a laser, like it was poised to vanquish the black heart of evil forever.

*

This is Amelia. Amy for short. I do not know her.

I don’t really even know her family, though I’ve seen the beauty and strength of her mother through the words on her blog. I don’t know Amy’s favorite kind of candy or her birthday or what she wants to be when she grows up.

What I know is that she has a lump on her neck. That today, there’s an oncologist who will say either “cancer” or “benign.”

What I know is that her mother stays awake at night, stroking her hair, aching in the darkness.

*

When I say “prayer” these days, I am acutely aware of how much I don’t know.

It is the tender heart of my greatest doubts, my biggest fears about God. Namely, that I could pray my little heart out for a certain outcome, a particular miracle, and in his terrible Goodness, God might do exactly the opposite.

Though I’m sure that the prayer-as-warfare metaphor still has some value, I find that I no longer have that warrior heart that I once did. I am a little tired now, a little broken. I still bear the wounds from all that battle.

Instead of making me feel powerful, prayer throws into stark light my own helplessness in the face of great pain. My dependence. My fear. There is so much ache in the world. So much evil. I am afraid that I will ask God to fix it, and he will say No for reasons that I cannot understand.

There was a stretch of years lost in all of my hurting where I barely prayed at all.

*

I have been praying in my own strange, imperfect way for Amy for one week now.

Her mother has put the call out into the bottomless internet. She’s asked us to pray “no cancer,” but I can’t even form the words in my mouth. I just picture this girl, barely older than my Dane, with her mop of brown hair, running.

I say, Lord…Amy…and I believe that He knows.

I still feel tentative and unsure about the relationship of my prayers to God’s action. It no longer feels as simple as cause and effect. As ask and you shall receive.

I don’t believe that God will take care of Amy because I ask it of him, but rather that he is taking care of her now, will take care of her always, regardless of my participation in the whole messy thing.

But I say her name again and again. Amy, Lord. I say it while loading the dishwasher or folding the laundry or driving my van, my own children subdued in their car seats behind me. It is a kind of liturgy for me, a kind of faith and hope and love.

I am reaching into the places I fear, holding the hands of strangers.

I am choosing, moment-by-moment, to touch my heart to the white-hot of their pain. To remember, as Anne Lamott once said, that “we’re all in the same soup.”

I don’t know if my prayers will change anything, but I know that the more I say her name to God, the more I am changed. I am becoming part of her story, and she is becoming part of mine. I am believing, with each mention, that we belong to each other. That we are community. That because of the cross, we are not alone in our suffering.

My heart is filled with fear and doubt, but today, this family is on the edge of the abyss. So today, I will hold her picture in my mind, and I will lift her name to God, and I will choose this imperfect kind of prayer, this threadbare kind of belief.

Please, if you can, reach your hands out into the dark. Join us who are unsure, and lift it up anyway.

35 thoughts on “Intercessory Prayer: Doubt and Faith and Amy

  1. I haven’t prayed for a long time. I have a hard time praying for a bad situation to a God who let the bad situation happen in the first place.

    I hope Amy doesn’t have cancer.

    1. I get that. I struggle too with that piece of it. Some days it feels like the most impossible thing in the world to believe. Other days, it is easy to recognize that there are bigger things going on here, mysterious things, things I don’t understand. None of it is simple.

      (Thanks for sharing.)

  2. Brilliant. Yes, Amy has my prayers. And you have my gratitude. I spent the weekend at a gathering of hundreds, in which the stories were all about the power of prayer to put out raging wildfires and dissolve bullets lodged in people’s bodies and heal everyone, every time, no matter what. It took me a while to figure out why this distressed me so, until I realized it was the utter certainty of these people that they knew the mind of God in every situation. I am so much more at home with what you say here, Addie, because it rings true with the utterly mysterious, often frustrating, extravagantly loving God I have experienced. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, John. That way of talking about prayer makes me uneasy too. I have seen to often when it didn’t work, and I have felt this weight of FAILURE when it didn’t. As if it were my fault. I didn’t pray hard enough. Believe enough. That I couldn’t even scrape together a freaking mustard seed of faith to make this person well.

      I love how you described God as “utterly mysterious, often frustrating, extravagantly loving.” Maybe that is where the faith piece comes in. You pray and believe not necessarily that God will give you what you ask for, but that he is “extravagantly loving” and even if you get the hard thing, the awful thing, the thing you absolutely don’t want, that will still be true.

  3. That prayer thing is really tough for me right now. So often, it’s simply a performance, even if it’s only for myself. I pray because I feel that I should pray, not because I deeply believe that “prayer changes things” or that “prayer is the answer” or any of those wonderfully intentioned but horribly misdirected mantras of Sunday morning announcement guys like myself. How many times have I encouraged people to pray because “God HEARS” and “GOD WILL ANSWER!” when deep in my heart there is no resounding of that statement at all? How many times have I stood before good people and said things that I hoped would encourage them to pray even as I walk thru day after day feeling no connection at all to this intimate Saviour who has promised to be with me until the end of the world, no matter what, if I would only believe? How many times have I sang “Praise You in this Storm” while feeling completely bitter at a God who seemed to have not even heard my searching cries at all? How many times have I promised that God would answer prayers because He promised that He would, even tho I’ve seen untimely death, unhealed disease, unresolved conflict, unloving hatred, and undeserved punishment time after time after time?

    Prayer baffles me.

    The more I think upon this Christian faith, the more it becomes obvious that either mine is virtually non-existent or we have all made monstrous mistakes as to what it even is.

    And both possibilities make me really sad.

    Because how on earth can I help somebody find answers in a faith that I continually fight to even believe while they seem to be bopping through live with little difficulty at all?

    1. Thanks for sharing this Bernard. Prayer is a little baffling to me too. I feel like I spent much of my faith life looking at it through the wrong lens, and I’m not totally sure what the right one is.

      I know what it’s like, too, to feel the cliches fall flat. Prayer started to unravel me when I was struggling with depression. I’d always heard it said, “If you’re feeling far from God, it’s you who have moved, not him.” But there I was, begging for his presence. Begging him to be there. And I could not feel him or hear him or see him at all.

      In the scheme of things, it doesn’t feel like a weighty enough reason to doubt (as opposed to death or disease and those desperate prayers against life-altering loss), but it shook me to the core and I feel like I’m still trying to get my bearings. What does communication with God really look like? What is it to be in a real relationship with him? Where were the cliches wrong? Where are they right?

      Don’t give up, friend. There is beauty in the doubt and in the not knowing. In the coming back, day after day, to that which you can’t understand but desperately want.

    2. I love your process.
      First, to steal from recovery culture, What we know of our insides will never compare to what we perceive on the outsides of others. Second, there is actually a helpless goodness in our common, desperate plea, “Lord, help me in my unbelief!”
      The self-deluded proud who are not desperately dependent are the ones missing out. It is the churning, raw and real of your journey that is the beauty itself my brother. Thanks for showing me that.

  4. Addie – I am joining you in praying for Amy … not because I think God is the waiter in our cafe of life who can bring me what I want from the kitchen … but because, like you, I hear the Spirit whispering from across the table from where I sit.

    “Pray for Amy,” she beckons, waiting in anticipatory patience for my response.

    And I am praying for Amy … and my own little Amy who never saw a minute of sunshine on this side of life will be praying for her as well.

    *tears*

    We both thank you for the invitation. I think I’ll head out now on my bike down the Luce Line trail and ride until the tears stop. Don’t expect me back any time soon.

    1. Thank you for this beautiful comment, Jim, and for praying into the grief of it all. The way you speak of hearing the Spirit whisper moves me.

      1. Somewhere between blaming God for causing my own little Amy to die (she was still-born full-term for some unknown reason) and blaming God for not blessing my wife with a healthy baby girl … somewhere between causation and choosing not to prevent lies a perilously thin edge of not knowing one way or the other. I try to walk and live on that edge and when I succeed it brings peace and comfort. For only on that edge of unknowing can I even come close to “knowing” the God who loves us beyond all understanding.

        Thank you again. Yesterday’s ride was one of the best.

        1. This is exactly it, Jim. That thin edge of, “I don’t know, I don’t understand, I don’t get it…yet I will somehow…trust anyway.” Somewhere ‘between causation and choosing not to prevent’ = yes. Thank you for these words. Thank you.

          1. Jim, I went over to your blog to try to connect with you, but as you know, there’s nowhere to connect! So I am back here, hoping you subscribed to follow-up comments via email. I am Amy’s mom – the Amy you prayed for back in July when we faced cancer in our 5 year old. She is 6 now, and by the grace of God, cancer free. We have battles with her that are different (she is special needs due to vaccine-related encephalitis). But we HAVE her. Our greatest prayer answered. My heart aches for the emptiness of your unanswered prayer, and your Amy that you are waiting this lifetime to meet. I have a Theodore in heaven I’ve never gotten the chance to hold.

            The beauty of your willingness to pray for my Amy through the tears of your own loss is the most beautiful picture of sacrificial grace I’ve witnessed in so long.
            Love,
            Amy’s Mom
            Genevieve

  5. What Shawn said. Yes. That.

    This is all I know about prayer: it is a mystery.

    And it changes us more than anything or anyone else.

    And I pray much like you do – throughout the day, especially when I take my walks in the late afternoons. And I lift names and faces – that’s usually all. And I count on the Spirit to bring those names and faces before me – the ones the God invites me to hold in my heart, before his throne.

    My preaching professor often told the story of how his small son’s life, which was hanging by a thread in a hospital far from home, took a turn for the better at the exact time that his home congregation was praying for him, thousands of miles away. But, he said, he could NOT tell that story without also telling the story of his son’s roommate, who did not seem as seriously ill, and for whom many were also praying. That boy died. So…you cannot tell the story of answered prayer without telling all of it, can you? Thanks for telling all of it here.

    1. Thank you for this Diane. I think this is one of the hardest things to wrap my mind around. How sometimes he does the most miraculous things: the instant healings, the turn-for-the-better correlating to the prayers of the people…all of it. And sometimes it feels like he’s not even there…like he never heard us at all.

      A God like that is so excruciatingly unpredictable. I can’t make sense of him. And I know that’s how it should be…that I wouldn’t want a God without mystery. But still. It is tough to learn to live in that tension.

  6. Ugh, yes, all of this. I rock in the same boat with prayer and results. I prayed for my mother for years, begged really and she took her life. So, wow that made me shift my prayer perspective. Still does. The world is broken, but I can bring hope, or try. I pray for wholeness, I guess. Yeah, prayer is sticky tricky.

  7. Oh, yes. I get this. All of it. Prayer doesn’t require flowery words, despite what I believed growing up, and this is what trips me up at times. I have seen how prayer changes me, regardless of outcome. That’s what helps me continue to pray even during dark times, even when I don’t know what to say. My friend’s dad died yesterday. My prayer this past week for her has been a whispered “be near, O God.” I have no words otherwise. I think of the verse in Romans about the Holy Spirit interceding on our behalf and it rings true.

    1. Yes, that’s mostly how I do it too now. Fragments of verses, pieces of truths. Whatever I can muster. I’m starting to believe that God doesn’t really need my suggestions on how a situation should be handled (though I never fail to give him a few). What he wants are my hands, holding and offering, and my frail sliver of faith.

  8. “I don’t believe that God will take care of Amy because I ask it of him, but rather that he is taking care of her now…” Yes, this. Tonight my husband asked, “Why do we ask God to bless us? Why do we ask his power to rain down? Hasn’t he already done these things? Why don’t we just wake up and take it?” Perhaps, our prayers are a little messed up, a little upside down. Perhaps, we should be praying for God to show us what he is doing. I am praying for Amy, too. I hope she doesn’t have cancer.

    Thanks for writing this.

    1. I love that prayer: Show us how you’re working here, God. Let us be part of it. Beautiful Tereasa.

  9. I used to think that the pillars of being a good evangelical Christian were 1) a fervent prayer life, 2) devotional bible study, and 3) sincere public worship. And I was lousy at each. Not just lousy; I did none of them. If I prayed at all, it was a thank you prayer before a family meal. If I studied the bible, it wasn’t devotional; it was intellectual, to pursue some curiosity. I couldn’t or never had worshipped in a church; if I did, it was along a trout stream or after a couple of drinks (or both).

    Sticking to the theme of your post, a note about fervent prayer. I had become very puzzled by James 5.17 reference to Elijah, a human like us, who “prayed earnestly that it would not rain.” I had thought, or been taught, or had modeled to me the notion that praying earnestly involved various facial and other bodily contortions, a voice that was on the point of pleading, begging, almost whining, maybe with just the right quaver in the voice, a slight tremolo. Then I looked at 1 Kings 17 & 18. I couldn’t find any record of Elijah praying that it wouldn’t rain, so I couldn’t find the biblical example of earnest prayer. There is a record of his prayer for it to start raining again after three years of drought, in the big showdown on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal. There Elijah prays: “LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18.36-37). It is brief: I can read that prayer aloud in one breath. It doesn’t sound fervent. It states facts: you are God, I am your servant. It makes one demand: let these people know you are God and I am your servant. It does ask for rain. So what does James know that the writer of Kings tells us nothing about? And how does Elijah’s earnest prayer compare to what I had been led to believe earnest prayer was?

    In case you are worried or wondering, I have gotten better at the three pillars of being a good evangelical. In each case it required me to completely revise and rethink my beliefs about what prayer, devotional bible study, and worship were.

  10. “It is the tender heart of my greatest doubts, my biggest fears about God. Namely, that I could pray my little heart out for a certain outcome, a particular miracle, and in his terrible Goodness, God might do exactly the opposite.”
    Or in His good terribleness He might do exactly as I’ve asked!
    We haven’t a clue if the desire of our heart is even the blessing we’ve convinced ourselves that it is. So, Addie, you’ve hit on true prayer, worshipful surrender, in holy simplicity:
    “Lord, Amy…”

  11. During my “on fire” days I used to pray the A.C.T.S. model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) every night, religiously. Now when I pray I start with “God I believe, but help my unbelief”. I usually don’t say much after that.

    1. Yes, I pray that often too. I heard that quote for the first time, restructured as a lyric in a Switchfoot song: “I’m a believer, help me believe,” and it stopped me in my tracks.

  12. Addie, Lord…Amy, Lord…all of us, Lord. SIGH. I am so comforted by your posts and the comments of others. I am not alone in my struggle! I am not alone in my confusion, my questions, my one word prayers and cries out for help! For something! I understand the depression. I experience the love of God in this sharing among us all. I am comforted to know that I am not lost and crazy out here. Thank you for sharing. Grace and peace.

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