Together in Prayer
"They all joined together constantly in prayer..." -- Acts 1:14
 


By Faith - The Bible's First Intercessor
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Prayer Connect Magazine.

As we grow in our understanding and practice of intercession, we inevitably begin to ask questions about the effectiveness of our prayers. We want to collaborate with God in the work that He is doing - but what is that work? We want to pray in God's will, but how do we know his will? And we long to see answers to our prayers, but what happens when those answers don't match our expectations?

While no single example of prayer in the Bible has all of the answers, I've come to look to the Bible's first intercessor to help with a few of these questions.

Abraham's intercession for Sodom and God's answer form the first example of intercessory prayer given in Scripture. Genesis 18 recounts God's revelation of his plan to Abraham and Abraham's response in prayer. But the story begins long before that.

By Faith - Preparing for Intercession
"For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19).

When God chooses us, he chooses us for a purpose. Our response to God determines our ability to hear his voice calling us to intercession.

God chose Abraham both to bless him and to make him a blessing to all peoples on earth (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham responded to God's call in faithful obedience. "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going" (Hebrews 11:8).

God initiated the relationship with Abraham, but Abraham's faithful, obedient response kept him in God's will. As a result, God confirmed his covenant with Abraham several times (Genesis 15, 17) and revealed his intentions to bless Abraham and to use him to be a blessing.

To be sure, Abraham wasn't perfect - he lied to Pharaoh about Sarah (Genesis 12:10-20) and wavered again in having a son by Hagar, Sarah's servant (Genesis 16). But God isn't looking for perfect people. He's looking for people who will be faithful to him through the years and whose faith will show itself in continued obedience. He found such a person in Abraham, and this set the stage for God's revelation of his plan to Abraham in Genesis 18.

As intercessors, it's important to us to hear God's voice so that we can pray his will. As we see from Abraham's example, hearing God's voice begins with living a life of faithful obedience, putting ourselves in a position of partnership with God, where God will speak to us.

By Faith - Interceding for God's Glory
"Then the Lord said, 'Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" (Genesis 18:17)

We normally picture intercession beginning with us, as we bring our requests to God. But intercession actually begins with God, though we may not always see that part of the story. God brings to our mind the name of a friend, or a situation needing his touch. He speaks to us through Scripture, revealing his heart. By these and other promptings, God leads us to intercession.

Having determined to reveal his judgment to Abraham, God initiates the conversation. “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know" (Genesis 18:20-21). Thus God invited Abraham's intercession in response.

Have you ever had a close family member or friend threatened by an imminent disaster, such as a hurricane? How did you pray? Were your thoughts consumed with the safety of your friend? Did you pray for the city? These are the thoughts that first occur to us, and praying for our loved ones in danger comes naturally.

Abraham's prayer focused not on his nephew nor even on the city of Sodom, but rather on the character of God. His heart cry, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25) revealed his primary concern - God's glory and reputation. He wrestled with God, trying to understand the interaction of God's judgment and his mercy. He prayed passionately but humbly, not making demands but asking God to reveal more of his character.

Much of our intercession is concerned with immediate circumstances. When we pray for others, we tend to pray "fix it" prayers - prayers that assume that God's plan is always to fix whatever immediate problem has our attention - health concerns, financial issues, relational breakdown, etc.

Abraham's intercession revealed a different priority. His prayer for Sodom wasn't primarily about sparing the people or the city - it was primarily about God acting in accord with His righteous character. For Abraham, intercession wasn't primarily about people or circumstances - it was about God.

The conversation ended as it had begun: on God's initiative. "When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home" (Genesis 18:33). Effective intercession starts and ends with God and has God as its focus.

By Faith - Trusting God's Goodness
"Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace" (Genesis 19:27-28).

How do we respond when God doesn't answer prayer the way we expect? How do we handle it when we can't see how God works?

Abraham didn't have to wait long for God's answer. The smoke told him all he needed to know. Sodom and Gomorrah were gone. What did he think when he saw the smoke rising from the plain? Did he mourn for Lot? Was he angry at God? Did he wonder why he had bothered to intercede for Sodom?

Scripture doesn't tell us Abraham's immediate reaction, but it does reveal his long-term response. "By faith Abraham...was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise…. By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice" (Hebrews 11:11, 17). Abraham didn't spend much time wallowing in doubt over God's "no" answer; rather, he continued to live as he always had - by faith.

Scripture also shows us that God wasn't unconcerned about Abraham's personal involvement: "So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived" (Genesis 19:29).

God is not limited by our intercession. Abraham's prayer focused on God's character and glory and did not mention Lot. But this didn't stop God from acting out of love and mercy for Abraham. The God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, who is capable of grand miracles, is also concerned with our very personal needs.

We don't know whether Abraham ever found out about this part of God's answer. Scripture records no meeting between the two after this episode. But we do know that Abraham continued a life of faithful obedience after this episode. Like many others in the "hall of faith", Abraham saw many of God's promises only from a distance, yet was still living by faith when he died (Hebrews 11:13).

"Success" in intercession is not so much about getting God to do what we want. It's about putting ourselves in a position to hear his voice, responding in prayer focused on him, and believing in his goodness regardless of how he chooses to answer. In short, it's about a relationship with God characterized by faithful obedience.