The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer describes God as the one who "knows our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking." If this is what we believe, then the needs of the patients being studied are well known to God before they checked into the hospital, received certification from their HMOs, and were divided into the groups who would be prayed for unknowingly, knowingly prayed for, or ignored. So what kind of a God do we have here, anyway? Does this God keep files, one for those being prayed for and one for those desolate folks ignored by the faithful? I suppose this view of God means that some poor person stands before God in desperate need, God checks the intercession file, and announces "Too bad, so sad, not enough prayers came in, so you, friend, are out of luck." Or, do we have a God who is forgetful of his creation and needs prayers to serve as something of a string around the divine finger to remind God to be compassionate?
I would like to think that God does not run the intercessory prayer enterprise like a popularity poll, with those most prayed for gaining the benefits and others neglected. I would find it unsettling for God to need to be reminded of his job. If we are to pray for each other, then we need to consider some more mature and compelling reasons for intercessions.
Intercession reminds us that human life is lived in community. The restoration of health involves people caring for the body, the mind and the human spirit. Chaplain Marek, at the Mayo Clinic offers an interesting explanation for why the people who knew they were prayed for had (slightly) more instances of postoperative complications. Perhaps they neglected their medical care during recovery because they thought that prayer covered all bases. It doesn't. Whenever we pray for the sick at our healing services, at the Episcopal parish where I serve, we always pray for physicians, nurses and all who minister to the suffering, recognizing that we are engaged in common endeavor.
For a Christian, all prayer takes us to the nearer presence of God. In fact, Luke the Evangelist uses just that phrase when he describes the prayer of Cornelius the Centurion in Acts (10:4ff). I like to think of that nearer presence of God like an intimate, special, distinctive place, almost like a room in which I meet more closely the one who created, redeemed and inspires me. When I pray for someone else, that prayer constitutes an invitation into that intimate place. In this way, prayer is an act of intimacy, an act of love, mirrored, perhaps, on the incarnation of God in which God took human flesh to be intimate with us in the most compelling possible way. Intercessory prayer, then, is an act of love.
Intercessory prayer may lead to all manner of good things, but it always leads to relationship with God. Again, Luke talks about asking, searching, and knocking on the door, all images of intercession or petition. Comparing God's generosity to parental generosity, Luke portrays Jesus speaking about our requests of God being answered by God who "gives the holy spirit to those who ask him." (Luke 11:12). We may ask for many things, but the one thing we are guaranteed of getting is God himself. For Christians, there is no realm of life, no human circumstance or condition into which God cannot penetrate by means of the Holy Spirit. Intercessory prayer is a reminder of the permanence of our relationship with God and its power to penetrate all of life.
Intercessory prayer needs to be integrated with the whole of human life. A prayer for healing is meaningless if it only reflects my desire not to have to live without my father's loving presence. A prayer for social justice is equally meaningless unless I am actively concerned with and working for adequate education for all children in our country. The answer to our intercessory prayers may well be a pointed inquiry about what we are doing to bring about the good things for which we pray. Anything less begins to look like an attempt to manipulate the world by means of supernatural trickery.
In rethinking intercessory prayer, Christians should ensure that the picture of God that emerges from our spiritual practices is actually the God in which we believe. Our God calls us to pray for others because such prayer reminds us of the way that the human community should function together. Our prayer for others is a symbol of our intimacy and love for them. Our prayers may or may not be answered in the way we want, but the one thing we always receive is God's presence. Our intercessory prayers should, when they are completed, turn our attention back to the world for which we pray, and compel our service to a world God love enough to die for.