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Prayer and the Common Life by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville. Copyright by Stone & Pierce 1968. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 4: Prayer as Intercession and Commitment


In the previous chapter, in order not to confuse the issues we studiously avoided discussion of what to many minds is the ultimate stone of stumbling in regard to prayer -- the prayer of intercession for other persons. Many who can see that it does some good to pray for themselves, because by praying their own powers and intentions are redirected, feel themselves thwarted at the idea that any prayer for another could possibly be efficacious. We must now attack this important problem head on.

The Prayer of Intercession

The issue is a vital one because so much of Christian faith centers here. Take prayer for other persons out of the experience of the Christian, and a great deal goes with it. Jesus prayed for others as simply and naturally as he prayed for himself. All through the Bible it is taken for granted. A large part of the prayers of the Church that have come down to us through the centuries are intercessory. It is the Christian’s natural mood to want to link prayer for others with personal petition, and one intuitively feels that there is something selfish and therefore unchristian if he prays only for himself. When one is untroubled by intellectual problems, it seems the most fitting and almost the inevitable thing to lift before God one’s concern for other persons.

Yet many persons who would sincerely like to believe in and practice intercessory prayer are stopped by doubts of its validity. We must examine these doubts sympathetically, for though we may ourselves feel no such blockage, when others do we ought to understand why.

One reason to be looked at as a possibility, though not to be charged against all who hesitate, is what was mentioned in the previous chapter as the implicit atheism of regarding the psychological effects of prayer as entirely self-caused. If prayer is merely a process of the reordering of one’s own thought patterns and emotional drives, it may be a fruitful process -- as long as one does not discover that he is "lifting himself by his own bootstraps." But on this assumption one will not long continue praying even for himself. An honest person will soon decide he had better engage in meditation and self-examination before the tribunal of his own mind instead of before God. He will then, perhaps, continue to think some important and necessary thoughts, but he ought not to call these prayer.

On such a basis, there can obviously be no intercessory prayer, though a substitute may continue in the form of the moral resolution to be more kind and serviceable to others. Such a resolution is better than indifference or callousness. Even though it may be shattered the first time one’s own will or preferred interest clashes with his neighbor’s, something is gained by having made the attempt. Such a substitute for praying ought not to be discredited if it is the best one can do with a sense of realism. But it ought to be clear that an assumption of the subjective, self-centered, and self-directed character of prayer puts a quietus not on intercession only but on all God-centered praying.

When a person has come to doubt the validity of intercessory prayer, it is fruitful to ask himself point-blank, "Am I doubting that God has anything to do with prayer?" If the answer is affirmative, the next step is to get straight on one’s whole structure of religious belief. If there is no God to pray to, of course one ought not to pray. If God is an impersonal cosmic force or simply the best in human ideals, all one can honestly do is to discover whatever goodness there is in the world or in human nature and try to align oneself with it. If God is the living, loving, personal God of Christian faith, it is he that acts within us when we pray. The door is then open to the belief that he acts within his world, including that important part of his world which consists of other persons.

A second, very common reason for doubting the legitimacy of intercessory prayer comes out of an assumption that has permeated the modern mind through the influence of scientific thought. This is that every effect must have a cause, every impulse in the human mind a stimulus. There is a lurking fear that intercession violates this principle. It looks as if prayer for other persons might be mere wishful thinking -- at best an attempt at thought transference, at worst a relic of primitive magic and incantation. Many who seriously believe in a personal God and in his power and willingness to remake the individual who prays are stopped at the idea that anything more can come out of it than a quickening of the will to be of better direct service to others.

At this point several things have to be held in mind at once. In the first place, if intercessory prayer did only this, it would be justified by its fruits, for certainly an important part of its answer is in what it stirs the person praying to do, or to feel, or to be, in relation to the person who is prayed for. No one can sincerely pray for an enemy without being moved to forgiveness, or for a sufferer without being stirred to want to relieve his pain. When we pray for those we love, it ought not to mean a shunting of responsibility for their care upon God, but a stimulus to the wiser and more resolute acceptance of our own responsibility. And in the second place, if a person knows he is being prayed for by someone in sympathy with him and his need, this knowledge is itself a source of support. Prayer adds richness to the human fellowship. But, in the third place, if this were all, it would fall into the limitations just cited regarding a too subjective view. If it has any objective foundation, intercessory prayer means that when we pray, God does something that would not otherwise be done. And, in the fourth place, in the kind of orderly world God has established, every effect does have a cause. We may not be able to see the connection, but there is no reason to doubt that it is there.

Putting together these facts, where do we come out? Intercessory prayer can best be understood as God’s release of his Spirit and healing, creative forces within a law-abiding world, such release being dependent in part upon our willingness to work with him for the furtherance of other persons’ good. This means that God does not automatically bestow all the good gifts he is waiting to impart, but the outpouring of his Spirit comes in greater measure when we pray. It comes not in defiance of law but within it. We ought not to suppose that prayers for the safety of a son in war or for the recovery of a loved one from mortal illness will bring about this result when conditions prevail which in a law-abiding world must lead to another outcome. But neither ought we to stop praying for them, as if everything in God’s world were mechanically determined. There may be what is sometimes referred to as a "law of prayer," though since its course cannot be precisely charted we would better call it a power of prayer, through which God acts to express purposes which he shares with us. If this is true, then our intercession matters greatly, not only to God but to the total social situation

An important aspect of the law-abidingness of God’s world is that human beings affect one another; hence, intercessory prayer ought to lead to the putting forth of the right stimulus upon another by conversation, letter, gift, or any other form of communication that is open. But if all other forms of communication are closed, as when the person prayed for is on the other side of the earth with all physical connections cut off, one may still believe that in God’s world spiritual connections are still open. As it has been put simply and beautifully in poetry,

Go thou thy way, and I go mine,
Apart yet not afar;
Only a thin veil hangs between
The pathways where we are.
And "God keep watch’tween thee and me";
This is my prayer;
He looks thy way, He looketh mine,
And keeps us near. (Julia A. Baker, "Mizpah.")

Though intercessory prayer ought to lead to better and wiser service to those for whom we pray, it is not necessary to suppose that such direct person-to-person service is the only kind. Intercession must never become a substitute for action. Yet sometimes the only -- and often the largest -- service we can render is to establish spiritual bonds and to work with God for the release of spiritual resources through prayer. God does not need to be informed by us what to do. He waits to inform us, to use us in prayer and through it, to impart healing and upbuilding power to the lives of others when we pray. Thus intercessory prayer becomes, not a substitute for action in ourselves or a form of coercion upon God, but a channel to the widest divine-human co-operation.

What happens in intercessory prayer cannot be fully explained and scientifically demonstrated. Its validity is, and probably always will be, a matter of faith and experience rather than proof. However, if one accepts the basic assumption that God is real and that there are spiritual forces in the universe which transcend though they do not violate natural law, the way is open to its possibility.

This does not mean that God will override the will of the person who is prayed for. In this, as in every other relation between God and man, God respects the freedom he has given us. The person for whom we pray may refuse to be helped by God or man, and we may need to try to win him to a more receptive mood. Or perhaps the change may need to take place within ourselves, lest our intercession unconsciously take the form of an attempt to dominate the will of another by our desires. In any case, if the spirit of the person prayed for is open to God, so are the channels of God’s power.

As to the evidence in experience of the effects of intercessory prayer, it is necessary to proceed both with assurance and with caution. Hosts of people have prayed for the recovery of loved ones from sickness, have seen the tide turn and flow upward when physicians saw no hope, and are therefore convinced beyond all argument that prayer was the only decisive factor. One may well believe this conclusion to be right, and nothing is to be gained by scoffing at their assurance. On the other hand, others have been prayed for with equal earnestness and faith, and they have died. What is important is not to decide in each case just how much effect prayer had, for lacking divine wisdom we cannot estimate the delicate balance of forces involved. What is vital is to live the life so grounded in prayer that, whatever the outcome, we will still go on trusting God and praying for spiritual victory for ourselves and others.

Commitment

We may now pass more rapidly over the other elements in the natural movement of prayer, for though vitally essential they present fewer problems.

The prayer of dedication, or commitment of self to God’s service as well as to God’s keeping, has been presupposed in all that has been said. Without it prayer becomes at best an emotional prop, and at worst an evasion of moral responsibility. It ought not to be restricted to a separate category of either praying or living.

Nevertheless, though all of life, like the whole of prayer, ought to center in self-giving before God, there is need of special expression of such commitment and of special occasions for it. Life is not lived all on a single level, and a high general level of dedication requires higher peaks within it. One needs, therefore, both privately and publicly to "renew his covenant with God," or in diction now heard less often than in an earlier day, to "lay all upon the altar."

A few suggestions will here be given. These will mainly be in the form of cautions, for the only affirmative suggestion needed is to feel with the whole soul the desire to give oneself to God and his service. The form of words will then largely take care of itself.

The first caution to be interposed is to guard against supposing that a temporary emotional feeling of complete abandon is the same thing as real self-giving. One may sing lustily and with no sense of hypocrisy,

My all is on the altar,
I’m waiting for the fire,

and before one gets home from the meeting where the hymn was sung, give way to bad temper, irritability, and unkind words. Indeed, if one is not on guard, the drain of nervous energy evoked by such emotional exaltation may cause one to "take it out on the family."

At the other extreme, one ought to guard against supposing that emotion in religion is something not quite proper, and therefore to be avoided by dignified sensible people. It is a curious situation that one is expected at a football game or political rally to give vent to an emotional enthusiasm, with motor expressions in the form of yelling, clapping of hands, and leaping into the air, which if practiced in a religious meeting would brand one as a fanatical "holy roller." Or if one prefers comparison with quieter pursuits, the greatness of a drama or a symphony depends on its power to stir the finer emotions, and the most damning thing a newspaper critic can say about it is that there was no feeling in it. In all religious experience, and particularly in the focal aspect of it we are now discussing, there ought to be powerful lifting emotion. It ought to be restrained in expression, as Paul sensed when he wrote, "Let all things be done decently and in order." But it ought never to be feeble. Fear of being "too emotional" has perhaps done more than anything else except self-centeredness to cut the roots from under religion and produce the secular and worldly climate of our time.

Another caution to be interposed is against supposing, on the one hand, that one can ever completely dedicate himself to God, and on the other, that the necessary incompleteness of our dedication is an excuse for holding anything back. The central problem of Christian ethics lies in the fact that we are told in the Sermon on the Mount, "Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," while the experience of every honest-minded Christian requires him to admit the truth in, "When ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants." It is self-deceptive ever to suppose that there is no taint of sin or self-love in us, and therefore that our dedication to God is absolute. One of the most subtle and serious forms of sin is the self-righteousness of supposing that one’s own dedication is more complete than another’s. But on the other hand, the awareness that after we have done our best we are still unprofitable servants ought not to produce despair and make us stop trying. It is the way of God as we see him in Christ to take what we have, use it in his service, forgive our shortcomings, and empower us to new effort. The Christian life consists, not in dedication once, however decisively, but in continued rededication as we catch new visions of duty and of God’s limitless power.

The last statement introduces another warning -- namely, the need of keeping in proper balance the great, critical dedications of life and the daily recommitments that are required of every Christian. Since the emergence of the religious education movement a half century ago, a debate has gone on, sometimes openly and sometimes covertly, between the advocates of Christian nurture and evangelism. From an earlier emphasis on the need of conversion, the emphasis shifted to gradual growth in Christian character. Now the pendulum is swinging back again to the need of specific personal decision for Christ. There need be no clash between these positions if it is recognized that each requires the other. Decision "once for all" can be a genuinely life-transforming experience, bringing into the soul of the individual new motives and interests, new direction, new power, and new joy. However, the genuineness of any conversion may be doubted unless it leads to repeated decisions for Christ amid the details of living. Religious nurture can -- and should eliminate the necessity for a sudden, dramatic, about-face. But it can never bypass the need of personal decision, for the heart of religion lies in a personal response of the will and commitment of life to the call of God in Christ.

The bearing upon prayer of what has been said in the preceding paragraphs should perhaps be suggested, though the relation is fairly obvious. In all prayer, public or private, there should be such an openness to God’s presence and commitment to his will as will purge and deepen emotions of reverence, trust, sincerity, humility, loving outreach. In all true prayer the object is not to impose one’s own will upon God, but to discover and accept what God has for us, and it is imperative to keep on trying in spite of failure. In all prayer that touches life -- and no prayer is more than words unless it does -- there is need, both continuous and alternating, of commitments of the whole self to God and repeated recommitments in the midst of the many petty details of life. To do otherwise is to miss either the forest or the trees.

Great, luminous mountain-top experiences of vision we ought to have. When we have them, we are likely to say with Peter, "Lord, it is good for us to be here" and not want to go down off the mountain. But the heart of the story of the transfiguration lies in the fact that Jesus saw there was work to do in the valley.

Transfigured on a mount the Master stood,
His raiment white, and dazzling to the sight
In radiance divine. It would be good
To stay and dwell forever in that light,
So Peter thought -- but Jesus spake him nay.
He knew that all about was work to do,
That in the vale below a sick boy lay,
And troubled folk they might bring healing to.

I too have seen a vision on a mount --
Have gazed on dazzling whiteness, and been swept
By mountain winds, dew-cleansed at morning’s fount.
I yearned to linger there -- but downward crept
A mist, and drove me to the vale below.
Because He went, I was less loath to go. ("Transfiguration" from my Holy Flame, p. 26. Used by permission of Bruce Humphries, Inc.)

Unless the voice of God can carry over into the uninspiring routines of life and the claims of sick, suffering, often sordid humanity, we had better return to the mood of confession and ask God to forgive us our blindness and folly.

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