by Marie Notcheva ©
A well-known biblical counseling ministry’s website has the slogan, “There is no hopeless situation or helpless person.” Although the citation does not come directly from the Bible, it might have made a good subtitle for Jesus’ healing ministry as recorded in Matthew. If we look closely at several of His miracles, we see an additional factor that should encourage us both as biblical counselors and as Christian friends: the power of intercession.
In Matthew 8:13, Jesus heals a centurion’s servant, marveling at the Roman’s faith. A few chapters later, Jesus encounters a demonized boy who could not be helped by His own disciples. His rebuke for their lack of faith is well-known, but what is easy to miss in this passage is that Jesus accepts one person’s faith on behalf of another. The son, like the centurion’s sick servant and the Canaanite’s daughter in chapter 15, was utterly helpless to seek the Lord himself. These people desperately needed healing and deliverance. And in His compassion, Jesus honors the prayer offered in faith for another’s well-being.
“Don’t Give Up!” (Luke 18:1)
What are the biggest hindrances to prayer? When we want to help others in their situation, we may feel we are completely “competent to counsel,” and be quicker to dole out advice than to hit our knees. “I’ve got this one covered, Lord…I know just what to tell her to ‘put off’ and ‘put on.’” This is, of course, pride.
Busyness is another hindrance. Failing to see “results” also causes us to give up—sometimes just before God moves. I have been amazed to see God restore broken relationships after I had quit, writing the situation off as “hopeless” in my mind. This is exactly the lack of faith for which Jesus chides His disciples. His hyperbolic statement about the “faith that moves mountains” (Matthew 21:21) is a direct reference to persistence in prayer—how often do we give up praying for a loved one’s salvation, a broken marriage, a strained relationship—because it seems impossible that God will change things? In the Gospel accounts, it appears that the only thing to disappoint Jesus is a lack of faith.
There are times when a sincere believer may be too weak to pray. Severely depressed counselees feel paralyzed spiritually. “Sometimes, you just don’t have the strength to even open the Bible,” one woman confided.
Many of us have had friends or teen children who have gone through a season in their life where they felt stuck in a dark pit, unable to pray, their faith shaken and damaged. Trapped in a suffocating, hopeless void, they need someone to stand in the gap.
We grieve with them. We would counsel, but they often are not ready to hear it. The only way we can sit next to them in the “pit” is to pray—and let them know we are doing so earnestly, often, and on their behalf.
When we are praying for another’s needs, we are taking their hand and entering the Throne Room of God together, in a kind of unseen fellowship that bridges time and geography. Yes, they may receive a measure of comfort simply by knowing that a friend is praying, but more importantly, interceding acknowledges that God alone is in control. Our faith is exercised as we pray; it is strengthened both when He answers and as we wait on Him.
Many times, I have actually felt the deep, assuring love God has for the friend I am lifting up to Him, even when the other person is still struggling. “I don’t know how You are going to do it, Lord, but please wrap Your arms tightly around so-and-so tonight. Hug my friend for me, and somehow let this person know that it is You. Please give some unmistakable encouragement that could only come from Your hand.” I have prayed this many times, not knowing how God was going to answer.
The Privilege of Prayer: Participating in the Embrace
Admittedly, it can be discouraging to intercede for someone who seems “spiritually unconscious.” In more cynical moments, I have questioned whether prayer was really just a way to feel like I was helping without actually doing anything. I once told a friend, “You can get the whole world praying for you, but if you’re not doing your part, it’s not going to help.”
Personal responsibility is definitely a biblical concept, but even in the case of a fellow believer being caught in sin, we’re still to pray: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life” (1 John 5:16).
However, very often it is not a “sin issue” for which a believer needs prayer. He or she may be hurting, maybe by the sin of another, sometimes by life’s circumstances, the sting of rejection, or suffering a great loss. Just as the father knelt before Jesus to plead for his son’s healing, we feel helpless begging Him to heal a friend’s broken heart. When we really trust that God will heal, we start to see this as a privilege.
And yet, we are not helpless. Neither are those for whom we are interceding—God is working behind the scenes. Crying out for those who are too weak to do so themselves is one of the greatest ways we “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Even when it doesn’t seem to be “working,” a faith-filled prayer offered on behalf of another greatly honors and pleases God.
Jesus did not respond to the Canaanite woman immediately—in order to illustrate what persistence looks like. When my counselee isn’t changing right away, my son’s sanctification is stalled, my friend’s heart is still broken, I need to remember that God is still listening. And He has those for whom I pray encased in His love, “wrapped in an embrace that won’t let go,” as a friend described it.
Throughout Scripture, believers are instructed to pray—to honor God, to guard ourselves from sin, and for one another. While God is Sovereign and knows the end from the beginning, we know that prayer changes things. How these truths work together remains a mystery, but one of the most straight-forward promises that God honors prayer comes from James 5:16:
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
People we care about need our prayer even more than our counsel. There are few joys greater than seeing someone for whom you have prayed earnestly emerge from a spiritual fog, walk away from doubts, and again start serving the Lord.
Join the Conversation
How can intercessory prayer become a central part of your biblical counseling ministry?