Why the Orthodox “Pray to” Saints

Icons of Saints in an Orthodox Church

One of the biggest objections people have when they look into the Orthodox Church is our practice of prayer to the saints. In this post, we explain why the Orthodox pray to saints and what role it plays in our spiritual lives.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

What it means to pray

Most non-Orthodox Christians have an entirely different understanding of what prayer is. And it is this misunderstanding that (most of the time) leads them to believe we are idolaters and necromancers.

To most Christians, prayer means speaking to God and/or asking Him for something. This definition naturally implies that we reserve prayer for God alone. It’s no surprise, then, that so many Western Christians reject praying to the saints. In Orthodoxy, though, the word pray is also used as an adverb, a preface before a polite request or instruction (ex: pray pour me a glass of wine). This definition does not imply a specific recipient of the request. Therefore, a Christian could pray to anyone, for anything, so long as they do not worship (i.e. devote their entire being to) anyone other than God.

What is a saint?

The Orthodox Church gives the title of “saint” to anyone who has lived and died in Christ throughout history. While certain Saints (with a capital “s”) are officially canonized and commemorated by the Church, every baptized Orthodox Christian is called to be a saint.

Saints are “those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14) through whom God is “bearing witness, both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will” (Hebrews 2:4). They died as martyrs, making a fearless confession of faith (often with the threat of death) and demonstrating self-sacrificing service to God. Our God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living (Mark 12:27). This means the saints remain fully alive in Christ even after they have fallen asleep. They continue to live with Him in Paradise beside His Throne and pursue communion with Him.

Icons of female saints in the Orthodox Church

Because Saints are friends of God, we make requests of them, asking them to pray to God for us and for forgiveness of our sins. (We sometimes call this intercessory prayer.) They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. A few well-known examples of Saints are the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, the writers of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and Saint Basil.

Why do Orthodox Christians pray to saints?

We know only God can forgive sins; but just as we might ask someone we know to pray for us, we do the same with the Saints. “Please pray for me; I have a job interview this week!” “Please pray for my mother’s quick recovery from surgery.” When an Orthodox Christian prays to a Saint, the same sort of interchange takes place. We merely ask him/her to pray for us, and we ask him/her to ask God to help us with whatever struggles we might encounter.

You might wonder, “Why pray to saints when you could go straight to God?” The answer is simple. Because we know they will intercede for us before the throne of God (2 Cor. 5:20; Phil. 1:19; James 5:16; Job 42:8; Gen 20:7; Exodus 32:11-14). We ask the Saints to pray for us because they dedicated themselves to Him – and sometimes gave their very lives. They serve as beautiful examples of how we, too, should fulfill our baptism through service to Christ and His Church. Because of their righteousness, their prayers have great power with God. We know that God’s hears our prayers; how much more so would He hear the prayers of His Holy Ones! It would be foolish of us to cast the Saints and their loving prayers aside.

But isn’t this worshiping the saints?

We must stress here that worship entails the giving of one’s entire life to the one being worshiped. So, while prayer can be a part of worship – when we pray to God, for example – prayer and worship themselves are not the same. When the Orthodox pray to saints, we do not devote our lives to serving them; instead, we merely ask for them to pray for us and intercede before God for our salvation.

When we do this, we confirm our belief in Jesus’ words that all are alive in Him. Orthodox Christians do not worship saints; however, we do venerate them. This means we pay them proper respect and love, because we acknowledge that their holiness comes from God. The worship accorded to God is His alone.

The power of intercessory prayer

Jesus Christ, in His resurrected glory, always prays to His Father on behalf of all mankind. As Scripture tells us, “He holds His priesthood permanently because He continues forever. Consequently He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:24-25).

In and through Christ, we can intercede before God. He empowers us (and commands us) to pray for each other and for all creation (1 Timothy 2:1-4; James 5:16-18). When we intercede for someone, we can ask God for any and every kind of blessing. Inspiration. Instruction. Visitation. Healing. Release from temptation. Forgiveness of sins. Salvation. Whatever we usually ask for ourselves, we can – and should – ask for all men, even our enemies.

Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.

James 5:16

To understand the power of intercessory prayer, we must remember God knows all things eternally. He exists outside of time. For God, there is no before and after. He knows what we ask before we even ask it. Thus He hears all of our prayers, even for those who are dead, before we even make them. There is great power in prayer, and even greater power in making that prayer tangible.

Intercessions are normal

Just as we might ask a friend to help us with something, we can also approach the Saints and ask for their help. They pray unceasingly in the presence of God for those of us still awake. And they serve as a shining example for all of us who one day hope to be saints in our own right. Why wouldn’t you want them praying for you?

Read More: How to Choose Your Patron Saint >>

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7 Responses

  1. Thank you for this clear explanation. As a cradle Orthodox Christian, I never thought it was odd, but I moved to an area of the country with a lot of Baptists, and they ask me about this.

    1. Alexis,

      Christ is in our midst! We are so glad this content is helpful to you in witnessing to the Orthodox Faith. Another book we recommend in helping you engage in dialogue with those of Protestant backgrounds is Father Michael Shanbour’s book, “Know the Faith.” It is a fabulous resource for cradles and converts alike!

  2. Through Christ I have the access to pray to God directly. He is omnipotent and omnipresent, and hears every prayer. Why then would I bother with praying to other intercessors on my behalf? Is Christ not good enough? Do I not trust that God heard me? Do I expect a “better” answer or at least the outcome I want by asking God Himself, and then every saint around him that I can recall?

    1. DD,

      Christ is in our midst! Asking for intercessions of the saints is not about Christ not being good enough, not trusting that God heard you, or expecting a “better” answer or outcome. Rather, it is about praying together as members of the Body of Christ. In the same way you ask your loved ones and friends to keep you in their prayers, so we do the same with the Saints. We know that prayer brings power along with it, and that the prayers of the righteous avail much before the Lord. Why *wouldn’t* you want them to be praying to God for you? God bless!

      1. Thanks for this explanation of the orthodox faith. I have attended several orthodox services and have been impressed by much of what I have witnessed. However, this issue of prayer to saints is my main sticking point when I consider selecting my church home and the potential of joining the orthodox faith.

        Please understand that I am a Christian seeking a church home to help my wife and me grow in my faith and I am desperate to find the home God would choose for us. I am worried about the laxity of many of the modern denominations and appreciate the earnestness and respect the Orthodox church gives to God. However, I also know that there are many false interpretations, even if they are sincere, and I do not want to choose wrongly. I am not calling the Orthodox faith false, but I am truly trying to understand, especially as relates to this important point.

        You asked the question to the prior comment “Why *wouldn’t* you want them to be praying to God for you?” But, for me, I do not think this is the question. I will gladly accept all the prayer and intercession I can get from my family in Christ. But I DO have reservations about praying to a human, living or dead, to get it. My reservations are several:

        1) I understand that only God knows the hearts of men and can judge them. But these Saints were canonized by men. Even when WE believe that these were holy and righteous men and women, how can we KNOW they are worthy IN GOD’S VIEW to be intercessors? If they are not, are we not in danger of acting AGAINST God’s will in praying to them?

        All men, even those advanced in leadership of the church (or a council of leaders), are human and fallible. None are perfect and none know God’s will perfectly. So how is ANY man or group able to ascertain for certain that another human is accepted by God as a saint and is worthy of hearing our prayers?

        2) 1 Timothy 2:5 says “for there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Does this not give clear instruction that our Lord Jesus is the only mediator for man with God? Do I not risk offending God to go around him? That, for me, is the big answer to “why would you NOT want” to pray to saints.

        3) The angel in Revelation 19:10 and Peter, himself, in Acts 10:25-26 command those who have fallen to worship them to not do so, as they are also just servants. Now, I know the explanation says the saints are venerated, not worshipped, but are we sure that bowing or kneeling and lighting candles to their images is not considered worshipping in God’s view? It is very hard for me not to understand these actions as worship and I do not want to offend God.

        4) in the explanation above, you mentioned the Saints are God’s friends. However, are we not told in John 15:15 that we are also his friends who believe and follow him? And, even if they are uniquely his friends, how or why should that change our personal relationship with God? A friend of the king is not the king and, should the king give you direct access, why would you risk offending him by going to his friend instead?

        5) Finally, did the Lord not instruct us to pray directly to him and teach us how to do so in the “Lord’s Prayer.”

        I have also read the passages sited in your explanation and I may be missing it but, while I do see plenty of support for Christians praying for one another, I do not see any direction from God for us to pray to any intercessor, especially one long dead, other than Christ Jesus.

        So, herein lies my problem; I am very interested in the Orthodox church but do not know how to reconcile this idea of prayer to Saints with my understanding of Jesus’ instruction to us. I am very uncomfortable with the further idea of needing to select a patron saint, should I wish to become a member.

        Can you help me understand this, please?
        God bless you.

        1. Benton,

          Christ is born! Thank you for your comment. Searching for Truth can be a very arduous and confusing journey; we pray that the Lord leads you to His Church in His time. Meanwhile, allow us to briefly address each of your reservations.

          Yes, God does know the hearts of men. And while certain Saints are indeed canonized, every human being is considered a Saint, as a member of the royal priesthood that Christ established with the creation of His Church. There are particular Saints who receive canonization to serve as excellent models for us who strive to live the life of Christ. So mention of the Saints in Scripture (of which there are several) refer to those grafted to the Vine, who are part of the Body of Christ, which is His Church. Moreover, Scripture tells us to pray for one another. That in itself is the implicit value the Lord places on our intercessions for one another, whether we are officially canonized or not.

          The sort of prayer we engage in with Saints is what we call intercessory prayer. It is merely asking them to pray for us before God, just as we would do so with anyone currently “alive” on earth. It is not the prayer we afford to God, which is worship and complete devotion of our lives to Him.

          Yes, Christ is the one who affected salvation for us. That is what “Mediator” means. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ established a pathway to communion with God that before did not exist. That is why He is the Mediator. Saints are not Mediators; they are merely intercessors, praying for us just as we on earth all pray for one another. It is not, as you put it, “going around God,” given that interceding for one another is something He specifically asks us to do.

          Regarding worship by bowing down, etc.: Veneration (gr. doulia) is a way to show great respect and love for the holy. It is to treat something or someone with reverence, deep respect, and honor. Veneration is distinct from worship (gr. latreia), for worship is a total giving over of the self to be united with God, while veneration is showing delight for what God has done. In fact, we venerate one another every day, respecting each other as brothers and sisters created in the image of God. In English, worship and veneration are often treated as synonymous; but they were never meant to be so, and the Church continues to distinguish between them and make clear this line that many Western Christians have erroneously blurred.

          Lastly, yes. Our Lord did teach us to pray directly to Him, which is what the Church does in her liturgical worship (corporate prayer) and what Orthodox Christians do in private prayer as well. The Saints are not dead, but alive in Christ, as He is the God of the living, not of the dead. God telling us to pray for one another is Him telling us to intercede on behalf of each other, to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. So, in effect, what is happening is our speaking to the Saint (as we would speak to anyone else) and asking for their prayers. The Saint (and we, then) in turn pray to God for whomever has asked us to do so. Death is not the end of our existence. It is merely a gateway from this temporal life into life eternal.

          We hope this has helped explain things in a bit more detail for you and answered some of your questions. If you have further questions, please feel welcome to contact our priest, Father Steven, at fr.steven@saintjohnchurch.org. He would be more than willing to answer any further questions or schedule a call with you!

          God bless!

        2. Hello, I see you wrote this in December but thought I’d offer my opinion. I believe the Eastern Greek Orthodox Church may be a beautiful start for you and your wife. I am forwarding a website that may help answers some questions. Eastern Orthodoxy claims to have fully preserved, without any deviation, the traditions, and doctrines of the early Christian church established by the apostles. Adherents believe themselves to be the only true and “right believing” Christian faith. God will show you the way. God bless you and your wife. 🙏🏻


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