“The plenitude of God, not the penury of the human condition, undergirds intercession.” (Eugene Peterson)

Have you ever finished praying and felt worse than when you started?! There have been times when I’ve been praying for someone, either personally or corporately, and I’ve felt so overwhelmed by their need, and my helplessness to do anything about that need, that I’ve wondered if prayer really does any good at all. I’ve prayed because I know God can work and because I know I’m helpless to do anything about that particular situation, but in truth, all I’ve really done is make yet another list of intractable problems with no real faith that there are any solutions to them. (I’m not quite sure why I think God needs a list of the problems to solve them, since He knows everything, but somehow that’s how I often think of prayer, as yet another ‘to do’ list, just this one is for God, not me!)

Have you ever read prayers in the Bible and thought that they sounded great but didn’t really look anything like your prayers? They seem so waffly and vague, never mentioning specific situations so you can never actually know how God answered those prayers. Paul’s prayers in Ephesians often used to strike me in that category: lofty, amazing, asking for so much and yet I used to wonder how on earth you could tell if God had actually done all those things, filling people with discernment, hope, love and knowledge.

The more I pray and meditate on Scripture, however, the more I realise that the difference between the prayers I read there and my own prayers are based in this idea of the plenitude of God and the penury of the human condition. Plenitude means fullness, an ample amount, an abundance. It captures this idea that God really is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph 3:2). Penury is the opposite, meaning extreme poverty or destitution. The human condition is such that often we have no power to do anything about the situations we are praying about and feel overwhelmed by our own sense of desperation and helplessness. Intercession, however, is more than simply identifying with someone’s needs, with entering in to their suffering and hurt. Undergirding means supporting or strengthening from underneath and when we intercede for others, we are really realising that God is the only one who can do anything about those situations. We can therefore pray with confidence and hope rather than despair, because God is far bigger and more powerful than even the worst circumstance we can imagine. He is not helpless or limited. He is all-powerful, all-knowing and utterly able to act!

Paul’s prayers are not, therefore, irrelevant to real life. They are prayers that see beyond the visible and understand the key issues far better than we often do when we simply name the visible problems before God. So he prays for wisdom and discernment and revelation to know God better (Eph 1:17), especially that they may know the hope to which God has called them, their inheritance in Christ and God’s power towards believers (Eph 1:18). He prays that Christ may dwell in their hearts by faith (Eph 3:17) and that they may truly grasp the extravagant measure of Christ’s love (Eph 3:18), so that “you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:19)

When I read that verse, I get a glimpse of the plenitude of God in prayer and after reading that, I definitely don’t feel worse than when I started! My eyes are lifted beyond the problems. I see God as He is, lifted high, all-powerful, well able to do more than I can ever possibly ask Him, and I am then encouraged to pray more, understanding that as I pray, God really does do so much more than I am able to understand!