Leadership as Intercession Part 3: Entering into the Suffering of God’s People

The rest of our summer eReflections series can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2.

“Do not be afraid to suffer.”  Rainer Maria Rilke

Oftentimes when I am in God’s presence on behalf of others — especially during times of corporate intercession or healing prayer when I am actually looking into the faces of those I am praying for  — I am surprised to feel tears coming out of my eyes and running down my face. This is something I cannot control and believe me — I would if I could! — because I find it messy and embarrassing and somewhat out of character.  One of the reasons I’m surprised is that I rarely know the details of what people are carrying and bringing to prayer and yet I can see and feel their suffering.  Others who are deeply involved in the ministry of intercession tell me this happens to them as well.

As I have pondered this phenomena, there is a passage from the novel, The Chosen, which has helped me to make sense of another aspect of leadership as intercession — that is, being willing to enter into the suffering of God’s people. Chaim Potock tells the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between two boys in Brooklyn in the 1940’s — Reuven, a secular Jew whose father is an intellectual Zionist and Danny, the brilliant son of revered rabbi Reb Saunders, who is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps.

One of the most powerful themes in the story has to do with Reb Saunders’ choice to raise Danny in silence—except when they study the Torah together — a choice that is painful and confusing for both boys.  In fact, Reuven begins to hate Reb Saunders for the pain he has caused his friend.  Toward the end of this marvelous book, Reb Saunders finally breaks his silence and speaks about what it was like to discover that his son was gifted with such an extraordinary mind.

When my Daniel was four, I realized that he was brilliant . . . but that there was no soul in my four-year-old Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul. . . . I cried inside my heart, I went away and cried out to the Master of the Universe, “What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!”

Beyond Brilliance

Then, with gut-wrenching emotion he describes his choice to raise Danny in near silence—the way his father had raised him — as a way of preparing him to be a spiritual leader.

My father himself never talked to me, except when we studied together. He taught me with silence. He taught me to look into myself, to find my own strength, to walk around inside myself in company with my own soul. When people would ask him why he was so silent with his own son he would say to them, . . . One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, he would say, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of the pain, he said. It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. . . . And when I was old enough to understand, he told me that of all people a tzaddik [spiritual leader] especially must know of pain. A tzaddik must know how to suffer for his people, he said. He must take their pain from them and carry it on his own shoulders. He must carry it always. He must grow old before his years. He must cry, in his heart he must always cry. Even when he dances and sings, he must cry for the sufferings of his people. ¹

By today’s standards this might seem a bit extreme and we might dismiss it as counter to current therapeutic wisdom; but to do so would be to miss the point entirely. What Reb Saunders is saying is that leaders become sensitized to the sufferings of their people by being in touch with their own suffering and allowing it to enlarge their souls. Being in touch with one’s own pain actually changes the way a leader carries others in heart and prayer.

The Soul of Leadership

So here is what I understand about all this: there is a necessary transformation that takes place in the lives of leaders as they experience their own sufferings and are changed by them in relation to the people they lead. 

Remaining attentive to my own search for God in the midst of my humanness  helps me become more comfortable with the humanness of others — less apt to make it my job to fix them. Being with the tenderness and vulnerability of my own humanity in God’s presence teaches me how to be with others in the tenderness and vulnerability of their humanity.

Seeing and naming my own woundedness helps me to know how to be with someone else as they are getting a glimpse of their woundedness without feeling compelled to meddle so much. Staying in touch with the undercurrent of longing and desire in my own life helps me to be reverent in the face of others’ attempts to express their longing and desire.

Facing the great unfixables of my own life and learning to live with them openly in God’s presence helps me be more compassionate when others are facing the great unfixables of their lives. Seeking to stay faithful to hearing and following God’s call in my own life has been the very best preparation for supporting and guiding others as they seek to say yes to God’s risky invitations in their lives.

What I know for sure is that there is no intellectual brilliance, strategic thinking, administrative excellence or gifted preaching that can make up for the ability to intercede for others in this way. This is the work of spiritual leadership and it is the road less travelled, to be sure.

A Certain Unavailabilty

In a day when leadership is most often defined as the ability to cast vision, think strategically, preach brilliantly, and overachieve regularly before moving on to the next plum assignment, a leader who suffers with and for his/her people over the long haul and sees this as spiritual leadership is pretty much unheard of.  This is the unsung hero who rarely gets profiled in magazines and religious news outlets.  This is the practice that rarely gets taught or acknowledged as central to a life of leadership and service in Christ’s kingdom.

These days I find myself wondering, who would we be if intercessory prayer shaped our leadership? How might it change the dynamic between us and those we are leading if they knew we are regularly and routinely entering into God’s presence with the intent to speak and lead from what transpires there?  Henri Nouwen answers the question this way,

“A certain unavailability is essential for the spiritual life of the minister. . . . How would it sound when the question, “Can I speak to the minister” is not answered by “I’m sorry, he has someone in his office” but by “I’m sorry, s/he is praying.” Could this not be a consoling ministry? What it says is that the minister is unavailable to me, not because s/he is more available to others, but because s/he is with God, and God alone—the God who is our God.” ²

Practicing Intercession

As we come to the end of this series, my prayer is that you would not to rush on to whatever is next in your day; rather, give yourself a few moments to practice leadership as intercession or to plan for a time when you can.

Breathe and become quiet in God’s presence. Allow yourself the gift of enjoying the presence of God for your own soul’s sake; rest for a while in the familiarity and the intimacy of your friendship with God. Then, as you are ready, allow God to bring others into this space — any person or situation that is of concern to you, someone who has asked for your prayers, anyone who has been harsh or critical or complaining, any situation that is causing you stress or requires wisdom. Imagine God asking, “Is it okay for us to invite this person to join us or for us to look at this situation together?”

If you are able to say yes, welcome that person or situation into the space where you and God are communing, and be with that in God’s presence. Listen for the prayer—the groaning too deep for words — that the Holy Spirit is already praying before the throne of grace. Ask God, “How can I join you in that prayer?” Do not force or push for anything; just rest in God relative to that situation. Don’t be surprised if God gives you the gift of tears. If wisdom regarding next steps seems to come from God, respond faithfully as God makes your way clear.

If you notice resistance to inviting a certain person or situation into the time you and God are sharing, feel free to tell God, “No, I’m not ready,” and then pay attention to that together. Even your resistance can tell you a lot about what is really going on inside you and God wants to be with you with that.

Praying Our Intercessions

The following intercessions might help give shape to this time in God’s presence.

Loving God, I hold in your healing presence those who suffer pain and ill health . . .
(silence to allow the names and faces of those you know to come to mind, and then pray)
. . . May they know the deep peace of Christ.

Loving God, I hold in your healing presence those who suffer in mind and spirit . . .(silence)
. . . May they know the deep peace of Christ.

Loving God, I hold in your healing presence the suffering people of our world, and the places where people are experiencing hurt and division — including places of hurt and division in my own life…(silence)
. . . May we know the deep peace of Christ.

Loving God, I hold in your healing presence those experiencing grief and loss . . . (silence)
. . . May they know the deep peace of Christ.

 Loving God, I hold in your healing presence those who need wisdom for their next steps . . .(silence)
. . . May they know the deep peace of Christ.

Loving God, I hold in your healing presence those people and situations that seem broken beyond repair . ..(silence)
. . . May we/they know the deep peace of Christ.

 Loving God, I hold in your healing presence and peace those whose needs are not known to me but who are known by you, and those for whom I have been asked to pray . . .(silence)
And I name in my heart all those who are close to me . . .(silence)
. . . May they know the deep peace of Christ.

Glory to God, from whom all love flows,
glory to Jesus, who showed his love through suffering,
and glory to the Holy Spirit, who brings light to the darkest places.
Amen. ³

©Ruth Haley Barton. 2014. Not to be reproduced without permission. Adapted from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

¹ Chaim Potok, The Chosen (New York: Ballantine Books, 1967), pp. 263-65.

² Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), as quoted in Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, eds., A Guide to Prayer (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), p. 122.

³ Adapted from Iona Abbey Worship Book (Glasgow, U.K.: Wild Goose Publications, 2001), pp. 96-97.

Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, and Longing for More.

How is God inviting you deeper into intercession as a key component of your life in leadership?

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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I stumbled on this article in a desperate search to find something or someone who connected with what I am feeling/experiencing. The heaviness on my heart is almost too much to bare at times. I am thankful for the guidance and will use these tools you have given me. “Burdens are lifted at Calvary, but burdens are given at Calvary too.” Ravi Zacharias
Thank you dear sister!

For me, tears at the pain of another have always been close to the surface. For years I struggled with this. As I sat in church as the pastor was praying for people who were hurting, my tears would inevitably flow. I never made it through any funeral without a lot of tears – even if I didn’t know the person who died – the pain I saw in their loved ones easily sparked my tears. The church I attended was in the round, so there was no hiding the tears when they came.

When a mid-life call to ministry prompted me to attend seminary, people in my congregation worried for me – how will you ever be able to do ministry without crying? I didn’t know but figured God would help me. I entered my time of Clinical Pastoral Education (serving as a hospital chaplain) with the goal of learning how to do “tear free ministry.”

Fortunately, my mentor recognized tears for what they are – a gift. Tears express empathy and compassion. They are a source of connecting with people at a heart-to-heart level. Tears provide a release for pain that is much healthier than bottling it up or numbing yourself from it.

I am now serving as a pastor. In the year-and-a-half since I’ve been in ministry I’ve officiated for 14 funerals and worked with many sick and hurting people. I have found that when tears have come (and they do) they have not gotten in the way of my ministry. Rather, they have been a part of authentic connection with the people I’m ministering to.

Although the gift of tears is a difficult gift, I have learned that they are a powerful gift in ministering with hurting people.


Thank you so much. I want to remember how important it is to be connected to and holding the pain of my world before the Lord. Thank you Ruth.

What a wonderful guide to intercession … as well as a way of quietening our hearts before and as we pray. Thank you so much for this series. Each one has addressed a particular need. May the Lord bless you in all that you need today.

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