ONE OF THE FAIREST FRUITS of intimacy with God is to be able
to carry each other’s burdens, and in this way fulfil the
law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). It is precious beyond words
to join ourselves in spirit with loved ones at times when
they are meeting together or are in special need of prayer.
When our spirit is untroubled by other worries (admittedly,
a big when!) we can feel as close to them as if we were
physically in their presence.1
I am taking it for granted that most of us have read plenty
of books about prayer, which frees me from having to go over
familiar ground. What is needed is often not just more
prayer but rather the ability to enter with faith and
imagination into the lives and situations we are concerned
about. With the Spirit’s help, any of the issues we read,
see or hear about can become the raw material for prayer.
||In the words of a contemporary hermit,
heart must be a furnace of love for sinners.’ Shutting out
all the needs which disturb us will assuredly not help to
stoke up the fire within us. Our prayer burdens will be as
different as our characters, but if Jesus offered up prayers
and petitions with loud tears and cries, then may the Lord
give us something of the same zeal!
We thought earlier about the advantage of setting aside
(see The Trysting Place). Like an athlete benefiting from long months of training, so
we need to sharpen our prayer life by avoiding too much
contact with the spirit of the world.
A season of more intense prayer, perhaps without food, may
do wonders to help us identify with the suffering of people
we would not normally even think about. Occasional times
without fiction, television, or some other comfort we have
come to take for granted may likewise do much to revive a
flagging spiritual life – or to enrich an already deep one.
Avid reader of the newspaper that I am, I found it
beneficial recently to spend a week without one. I made use
of the time instead to pay more attention to the excellent
Christian publications I receive. Our primary call is to
meet with the Lord and to resist evil; it is not necessarily
our duty to know about every issue that the far from
Spirit-led media is currently featuring.
As time goes by, we will find ourselves particularly drawn
to pray for certain people, places and professions. We
usually pray best and most sincerely for the subjects that
are closest to our hearts – but beware of unhealthy biases!
A Way in to Wider Prayer
If you are one of the many who find the thought of praying
for wider issues so daunting that you rarely make a start,
here is a simple way to approach such subjects.
Suppose, for example, that you want to pray for the
education system, but feel intimidated by the size of the
Start by praying for one teacher or child whom you
know, and take them as representative of the whole group.
Pray for them by name. Then move on to pray for the school
that they are part of, and then for the other schools in the
Before you know it, you will find yourselves praying
for the whole education system. It is easy to do the same
with the Health Service, perhaps by praying first for
someone who works in a hospital, or who is currently
hospitalized. In such ways, any issue, institution or even
nation comes within reach.
||Ideally, prayer requires both time and energy, but God is
ingenious when time is at a premium. We considered in ‘The
Pace of Life’ how we can use the odd moments during the day,
including our times of travelling.
We must also learn to respond quickly when the Lord wakes us in the middle of the
night, or when we sense that He has a reason for keeping us
up late (or waking us early).
It is precious to spend time
with Him at an hour when there are few distractions around.
Spending time with people who are further along the path
than ourselves will also help our desire to pray. We are
inspired by their fervour and encouraged by their
expectation that God will act when they pray.
|If strategy is central to success in business and military
circles, why should it be any less so in the realm of
After all, if one country is going to invade
another, the commander-in- chief does not allow every ship,
regiment or squadron of aeroplanes to start fighting when
and wherever they feel like it. He concentrates his forces
according to a master plan. As Christians we are engaged in
serious spiritual warfare. It is important for us to
discover the Commander’s plan, and to play our proper part
If we do not think ‘strategically,’ our prayers may quickly
degenerate into mere idle longing along the lines of, ‘Oh if
only the government would show more interest in the
unemployed!’ Such longings tend to be ineffectual, and lead
either to long ‘shopping lists’, or worse, to naive
assumptions that so-and-so is the ‘goody’ and someone else
|Prayer can all too easily degenerate into a
self-righteous condemnation of those who do not think as
we do. This does nothing to advance the Kingdom of God.
Our warfare is not against flesh and blood but against
intelligent people without bodies: the principalities and
powers of darkness. Most traditional church prayers contain
little hint of this dimension of spiritual warfare. Perhaps
this is because it is naively assumed that the institutions
of state will always be used for the maintenance of religion
and all good values. Whilst we have much to be thankful for
in our nation, we cannot afford to be under any delusions;
the prevailing ethos in our society is profoundly ungodly
and displeasing to the Lord. The devil has a vested interest
in making the state a servant of Mammon, and an instrument
of oppression. Churchill’s maxim, ‘constant vigilance is the
price for ongoing freedom’ is a reminder of the need to keep
on praying for the Lord to watch over our nation during
these times of upheaval.
Establishing Lines of Communication
||When we are linked by the power of prayer, we, as it were,
hold each other’s hand as we walk side by side along a
slippery path; and thus it comes about that the harder each
one leans on the other, the more firmly we are rivetted
together in brotherly love.
(Gregory the Great)2
When we enter the combat zone in the heavenly places we
encounter fierce opposition. It is not in the least unusual
to find Christian workers labouring under afflictions that
go far beyond what we might associate with the Refiner’s
fire.3 We saw earlier that, in some mysterious way, the Lord
makes use of evil to help us seek Him more wholeheartedly.
But Scripture urges us not only to come near to God but
also to resist the devil (James 4:7-8). We will do this much
more effectively if we are part of a group which prays for
each other. Pastors, and those involved in high-profile
spiritual work, are in special need of prayer cover and
There is much we can do to help each other. A teacher of
religious education came to me one day, deeply distressed
about a particular class who were playing her up. Many of
the children were actively involved in the occult, and
highly cynical about the claims of the gospel. I suggested
that she ask her house group to pray for her. She came back
the following week beaming. Her class was transformed, and
the biggest trouble-makers had been going out of their way
to be helpful! Such examples can be multiplied almost
endlessly as we learn to harness the power of prayer.
||This matter of ‘rounding up’ prayer covering is such a
crucial issue that I do not leave it to chance. I know from
much experience the difference it makes when I am being
prayed for. Physically I am not strong, but times without
number I have known extraordinary strength surging through
me when I have most needed it. Spiritual gifts likewise come
within reach when our prayer covering is in place.
Before embarking on important projects I therefore go to
considerable trouble to inform people of what I am planning
to do. It is much better if these ‘lines of communication’
are in place before emergencies occur. Then, when a serious
situation develops, we know immediately how to mobilize the
Most of us find it hard to pray when certain distressing
situations come our way. It can sometimes be hardest to pray
with objective faith for people we are particularly close
to. It is enormously releasing if we can find someone who is
less emotionally involved than ourselves to pray for these
people, because they can do so with much greater faith and
objectivity than we are able to do. At other times we can do
as much for them in the areas where they struggle.
Guarding the Burden-Bearer’s Timetable
Given the sheer amount of information that comes our way in
the course of an average day, it is hardly surprising that
our minds sometimes feel overloaded and we begin to suffer
from compassion fatigue. We are shocked by the scale of
suffering that afflicts the world, and consequently tend to
shut out needs and problems we feel we can do nothing about.
The devil is all in favour of this. If he can’t stop us
praying at all, then he sets out to exhaust us with needs
and burdens that we were never meant to take up. As
burden-bearers, it is wise to spend time with the Lord
before accepting fresh responsibilities and engagements
lest our own ‘need to be needed’ leads us to take on more
than we should.
To help us bring our lives into balance, Gordon MacDonald
introduces us in Restoring your Spiritual Passion4 to some
of the different types of characters we have to deal with.
These include VTPs (Very Trainable People) who we should
invest in heavily, VIPs (Very Important People) whose wisdom
sharpens our lives, and VDPs (Very Draining People) who have
a peculiar way of ‘leeching’ our time and energies. Gordon
warns against allowing such people to take up a
disproportionate amount of our time. The devil loves to see
us spending huge quantities of time with people we can
‘almost’ help, instead of being with people we really could
help, or be helped by. If we are not careful, we can find
ourselves left with insufficient time to befriend the people
who would most benefit from our input. Trainable people are
often highly sensitive to our perceived busyness, and hold
back from imposing themselves on us. It is therefore up to
us to sense their hidden giftings, and to go out of our way
to spend time nurturing and encouraging them.
This is not to write the VDPs off. By God’s grace all and
any can change, but it is a call to examine our calendar.
Are VDPs dominating our lives? If they are, then we will not
be inputting into the strategic VTPs, let alone be receiving
nurture ourselves through VIPs. It is worth reflecting that
the Lord Jesus walked past many people who were in need. In
other words, He did not allow a person’s need to
automatically dictate His actions. We must also learn to
take time out to refresh ourselves when VDPs have exhausted
us, and to make the effort to maintain contact with the VIPs
who keep watch over us.
Bearing Burdens in the Spirit
|The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we
ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us
with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches
our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit
intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
|Much of the art of burden-bearing centres around the ability
to recognize the particular ways in which the Lord brings
people to mind whom He would have us pray for. This often
happens out of the blue – when we are doing the washing up,
or driving along, for instance. It is not in the least
unspiritual, however, to make lists of people and subjects
we wish to remember regularly in prayer. Carefully chosen
topics add structure to our spiritual lives. They jog our
woeful memories and focus our wandering minds. I was amused
to come across a man who kept a long list of people to pray
for pinned above his bed. As he hopped into bed late one
night he called out wearily, ‘Same as usual for a Monday
Amusing though this anecdote is, it highlights a genuine
problem. By nature, burden-bearers are supremely concerned
to succour the needy. As John and Paula Sandford explain,
burden-bearers will be down on their knees praying for a
deeper work of grace among God’s people at the time when
others are off to enjoy themselves at parties.5 For he, or
more likely she, (for women tend to be more instinctive
burden- bearers than men), has already sensed the hindrances
that are not so readily discernible. Conversely, when the
church begins to feel challenged, and to mourn its
sinfulness and lack of power, there will be joy in the
This ability to empathize is such an important key to
effective intercession that the devil tries to distort the
gift. By making us identify too deeply with some distressing
situations, we are in danger of ending up almost as
despondent as the people we are praying for. As so often in
the spiritual life, our greatest strengths can easily become
our greatest weaknesses.
This, I believe, is one of the reasons why many of us
subconsciously prefer to limit our involvement to matters
close to home and heart. The mere thought of certain types
of suffering may be enough to induce in some people a
degree of spiritual paralysis. The Lord Jesus warned us that
because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will
grow cold (Matthew 24:12). We must not allow difficulties to
rob both God and people all around the world of the good we
could be doing on their behalf through prayer.
If we are to associate ourselves with those who are
suffering, it is crucial that we know with all our hearts
that Jesus is Lord, that heaven is stronger than hell, and
that praise lifts us into the dimension which God inhabits.
Otherwise we will merely worry. Were we to open our hearts
to every need we hear about, we would be crushed by the
weight of sin and sorrow. It is inevitable that we set up
barriers and filters across the entrance to our mind in
order to protect ourselves. The risk is that we go too far,
effectively ‘privatizing’ our faith. Our subconscious
springs to its own defence, and we end up praying little
more than a grown-up’s version of ‘God bless Mummy and
Daddy, and keep us all well-fed and well-paid.’7
It grieves me greatly that most churches pay so little
attention to prayer in their Sunday services. How can it be
right to leave it all to the relative handful who attend the
midweek prayer meeting? The more the Lord teaches us about
the power that can be released into world situations through
prayer, the more we realise that we are not so powerless
after all. God has given His intercessors authority in
prayer, so that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in
heaven, and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in
heaven (Matthew 18:18). We must find ways to harness this
gift of prayer and to give it its rightful place in the life
of the Church.
Handling the Calling
||The world scoffs at the thought of a man weeping for his
neighbour’s sins as if for his own, or even more than for
his own, for it seems contrary to nature. But the love which
brings it about is not of this world.
(Angela of Foligno)8
I asked the Lord once to show me more about what it meant to
be a burden-bearer. By way of a reply, He showed me in the
spirit a picture of an eastern lady. She was walking along,
carrying a pitcher on her head without apparent effort.
When I tried to do the same it proved much harder than I had expected. The pitcher slipped from my head to my shoulders
with the result that I was staggering along, bent almost
double under its weight. The Lord revealed that the secret
of carrying burdens lies in ‘poise, posture and practice’.
The Lord wants us to be able to carry heavier burdens for
longer periods of time without becoming excessively drained
in the process. There is much to ponder here. As
burden-bearers, we will often find ourselves identifying
with the pain and struggles that others are going through.
‘Who is weak and I do not feel weak?’ asked Paul. ‘Who is
led into sin and I do not inwardly burn?’ (2 Corinthians
Shortly after we were married, Rosalind and I experienced a
day when we became extremely tense and irritated with each
other. It crossed my mind that the Lord might be using this
to highlight the intense warfare that is being waged against
Christian marriages. Minutes later, I heard that a man in
our congregation had left his wife in a storm of violence.
(Mercifully the separation was only temporary).
I wish I could say that we only get uptight with each other
when we are identifying with other people’s problems!
Nevertheless, there is an authentic aspect to such
identification which we do well to be aware of. We may, for
example, sometimes experience in our own bodies some of the
symptoms of a sick person we are praying for. It is surely
far more useful to cry out to the Lord when we are feeling
sick or weighed down than just to soldier on. At the very
least it transforms our apparently negative emotions into
With experience, we learn to recognize when we are feeling
deflated, and hence less able to bear burdens. These times
often follow hard on the heels of particular blessings.
Another risk that burden-bearers run is that we begin to
derive our sense of self-worth from what we do on behalf of
other people. In extreme cases, we can become so taken up
with the needs of others that we lose any real confidence
that the Lord loves us for our own sake at all. So deeply
ingrained is this need to be strong for the sake of others
that we risk repressing our own feelings, until the day
comes when they burst out like a pent-up volcano.
When our inner being is cluttered and confused by all the
needs and hurts around us, however, it is all too easy to
develop manipulative ways to protect ourselves, and to
control the environment around us. I have seen men driven by
powerful insecurities imposing a tyranny of rigid rules and
regulations on their families – rather like Captain von
Trapp in ‘The Sound of Music’ whistling his orders to his
young family. Much of the poignancy of this story lies in
the way his future wife pierced his defences and brought
down the walls that he had built up to protect himself.
All such control mechanisms must be seen for what they are:
a sinful intrusion on the freedom of others. If staying open
and remaining flexible is costly, the alternative is worse.
The walls that we build to protect ourselves have a way of
keeping out many of God’s choicest blessings – including the
people who really could have helped us. We are unwise if we
become too selective in who we will see, and when. Who are
we to say what is really best for us?
It is much the same in the life of the Church. It is not as
easy as it sounds to allow the Lord Jesus to be the
unconditional Head of His Church. Many leaders regulate and
surround activities with all manner of restrictions in
order to keep them ‘safe’. In the process, many devout and
free spirits are trampled on. Some never recover.
||Intercession is not magic. God does not take away our free
will, and neither must we in our prayers for each other. We
cannot take a burden completely off people who are unwilling
for it to be taken from them. Scripture is quite clear that
each one should carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). What the
Lord may give us is the authority to ‘lift’ the weight of
whatever has been causing the problem to the point where a
person is free to decide for him or herself how it is that
they want to live.
The intercessor is used, therefore, to ‘narrow the gap’
between the way things are and the way God wants them to be.
You see something wrong? Then pray about it! You see someone in need? Then pray for them! You will find that you
have entered into the ministry of heaven itself, and you
will experience much sweet fellowship with our Risen
Saviour, who is even now interceding for His children.
|There are some favours that the Almighty does not grant
either the first, or the second, or the third time you ask
Him, because He wishes you to pray for a long time. Often,
He wills this delay to keep you in a state of humility.
Do you live and work in the fast lane? Then take time to
pray for those who are in the Lord’s slow lane: prisoners,
(both criminal and religious); the bereaved; the seriously
ill; the spiritually isolated – especially those who
struggle to survive as Christians in hostile countries.
Have you been slowed down and wonder what you are doing in
the slow lane? As you look across at the fast track, it is
easy to feel out of things. Try to turn these feelings round
by praying for those who are in the public eye: media
presenters, politicians, church and mission leaders and the
such like, people doing tasks that you, for the moment at
least, have no opportunity to do. The one who knows how to
bear burdens in prayer need never feel excluded!
Lord, I want to take this call to prayer seriously. Fill me
anew with the Holy Spirit of prayer. Keep my heart free from
unnecessary preoccupations so that I can share more fully in
this holy work of lifting others before Your throne. Prompt
me to pray for the particular people, places and situations
that You bring to my attention. Remind me, too, of all those
burdens You have given me in the past, and which I have so
often neglected. Thank You that you want to give me joy in
the house of prayer! In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1 Corinthians 5:4.
Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints Jill Haak Adels. (O.U.P.).
We often come under attack in the precise areas we have been
praying about. It is also worth being aware that there are
satanic covens who meet regularly to call down curses on
pastors and their families, and on Christian enterprise in
general. This is not to be underestimated. For those who
feel they may be afflicted in such ways, I would recommend
Francis Frangipane’s book The Divine Antidote, together with
specific prayer and fasting.
Gordon MacDonald, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion (Highland).
John and Paula Sandford, The Elijah Task (Logos International). We can continue to ‘burden-bear’ even when
we are in the midst of other pursuits. The gift of tongues
is a wonderful asset in this respect. It is obviously
better, though, to find a place where you can devote your
whole attention to the matter you feel called to pray about.
There are no simple answers to this dilemma. Richard
Foster’s book The Freedom of Simplicity (S.P.C.K. Triangle)
is a modern masterpiece on the inner life, as well as a
serious examination of how we should be living in the light
of gross global inequalities.
Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints Jill Haak Adels (O.U.P.).