A friend of mine is in a lot of pain and far from home. He committed to a month and a half of working in another country, but within 72 hours of his departure his knee went wonky enough that he’s scheduled for surgery as soon as he returns. In the meantime, he’s looking at six weeks of pain in another country where he feels totally alone.

I’ve been there; oh, have I been there (for details, see God in the Dark). I’ve tasted that cocktail of loneliness, anxiety and pain, and trust me, no one wants to drink from that cup.

So I do the Christian thing: I pray for him, and I ask my best praying friends to pray for him. But intercessory prayer is a funny thing. Why does God want us to bring people’s needs to him? Doesn’t he already know what they need? Jesus assures us that the Father “knows that you need all these things” (Mt 6:32). But there he is, nine verses later, telling us to ask, seek, knock, and God will respond. Elsewhere (Luke 18) he tells us to pester God if necessary, and eventually he’ll cave. But why would God leave someone else’s well-being in my hands? God must know better than to give me that kind of power. And anyone can see that God doesn’t always cave.

I haven’t really answered these questions, but in Charles Williams’ 1950 novel The Greater Trumps, I found a model of intercession that works for me. The story is about the use and abuse of spiritual power, and one of the characters is a mystic named—ready?—Sybil. While the others are caught up in the drama, Sybil is serene, grounded, always connected to the Real. A glimpse into her character comes in an exchange where she’s just been complimented by a young man:

“If I wasn’t in furs, I’d curtsey. You’ll make me wish myself Nancy’s age—for one evening.”

“I think it’s long,” he said, “since you have wished yourself anything but what you are.”

Here is Williams’ picture of Sybil at intercessory prayer. Concerned for Nancy,

she turned to her habitual resource. She emptied her mind of all thoughts and pictures; she held it empty till the sudden change in it gave her the consciousness of the spreading out of the stronger will within; then she allowed that now unimportant daily mind to bear the image and memory of Nancy into its presence. She did not, in the ordinary sense, “pray for” Nancy; she did not presume to suggest to Omniscience what it would be a thoroughly good thing if It did. She merely held her own thought of Nancy stable in the midst of Omniscience.

Intercessory prayer raises lots of questions, but this makes sense to me. What about you? How do you reconcile the contradiction of an omniscient God who’s told us to ask for what we need?