I have long had a philosophical difficulty with the purpose of petitionary prayer. This is when a Christian prays to God, asking Him to bring something about. For example, a married couple may pray to God for a child, or one may pray for success or healing. Now traditional Christian belief holds that God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and so he can bring about our desired outcome, but also that He is omniscient (all-knowing) and that He is immutable (He doesn’t change). If God were to grant us what we ask Him for in prayer, then surely he would be changing Himself and/or his action in response to our petition and so He couldn’t retain His sovereignty or immutability. God would almost, in a way, be subject to human desires/whims. It is worth bearing in mind that this philosophical difficulty only applies to this particular form of prayer and that there are rightly many other purposes to prayer other than asking God for certain things we want for ourselves or others. I will now discuss these other types before returning to thinking more deeply about petitionary prayer.
Prayer as Communication and Relationship
Arguably, the most important role of prayer is to spend time with God in His presence. In the Gospels, Jesus tells His followers that they are His friends and so, just as one meets up with and spends time with a friend, we should do this with God. Now it would not be true friendship if we only ever met up with our friends and spent time with them to ask them for things and to get certain things from them. So it is with God, remember that Heaven is essentially us being in God’s presence and that that is our supreme end and goal in this life. The following Biblical verses show us just how important it is to seek God and to dwell in His presence:
‘One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to enquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will lift me high upon a rock.
And now my head shall be lifted up
above my enemies all round me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
“Your face, Lord, do I seek.”’
‘But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works’
‘Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence’
Prayer as a way of changing ourselves
‘The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays’
In the extraordinary film Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) makes a similar point arguing that, as the need to pray flowed right through him, this completely rearranged and reordered his priorities and made him place a greater focus on prayer and spiritual routine and discipline. He stated that God was changing him rather than vice versa. Additionally, the more time we spend with God in His presence, the more committed and devoted we are to Him and the better a friend we become.
Prayer as Praise and Forgiveness
Two vital parts of the Christian life are praising God, for what He has done in our
lives and in the world, giving thanks to Him, and confessing our sins to Him in penitence and faith and vowing to repent and trying, with His help, to change our ways in future. These things should clearly, explicitly and repeatedly enter into our prayers.
Now with petitionary prayer we must bear a few things in mind. Firstly, God is atemporal and timeless; He is completely beyond and outside of time. Now when we speak of petitionary prayer, we slip into the dangerous trap of presuming that God is within time as we are and here we wrongly anthropomorphise Him. The concepts of causation and change, reaction, reply, answering and response can only exist and only make any sense at all if all persons, beings, objects, subjects and factors involved are located completely within time. For example, if Person A pushes Person B, Person B will then subsequently fall over (after Person A pushed him/her). This is cause and effect in action and for causation to make sense, the cause must precede the effect and effect must succeed the cause, but there is no before or after, no past or future outside of time, or to God. However, God (the most important and powerful being involved here) exists entirely outside of time and so it makes no sense to say that God could change, that he could respond or react to anything, or that our prayer could cause him to do something.
Second, God knows the future and what we will ask for in the future (as Augustine, Aquinas, Williams, Stump, Packer all point out) and so it could be argued that before the creation of the world, God foreknew what we would ask for and decided at that point that how he would then respond to our future demands. However, again the word “before” no sense here, his seems to suggest that God is somehow subject to our demands and that he is mutable. Third, the antinomy of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility has a huge bearing on the debate around petitionary prayer. Calvinists argue that God is completely sovereign and that humans have no free will. They argue that the point in praying to God is that we have faith that, because He is sovereign and trumps our own freedom, He can and therefore will act. However, Arminians argue that there is no point in petitionary prayer because God will always act in the way that he was always going to anyway due to his sovereignty, foreknowledge, omniscience and immutability To focus solely or largely on the petitionary prayer is to be selfish as we are centring prayer on what we want. It is almost like that which US President John F. Kennedy said,
‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’
(US President John F. Kennedy)
In a similar spirit, we should ‘Ask not what God can do for us, but what we can do for God, and how can serve and worship and show your gratitude for his free gift of grace, redemption and salvation’.
Much of the questions surrounding the mechanics of petitionary prayer relate to the Calvinism-Arminianism debate. Calvinists generally argue that God is sovereign and that everything that happens on Earth happens because God willed it and predestined it (brought it about in advance). However, Arminians generally argue that God is not sovereign, that He does not predestine all, even though he does foreknow all that will happen in advance. He instead allows us humans free will. Now Arminians argue that, if one is a Calvinist, petitionary prayer is pointless as God was always going to do what he was always going to do due to his predestination from before the beginning of time and due to his theological determinism. Therefore, no prayers from us can or will have any possible impact upon the predestined, predetermined course of action which God has already decided upon. However, Calvinists argue that, if one is an Arminian, petitionary prayer is pointless as, if God isn’t sovereign and if His allowing us freedom restricts His power or sovereignty or ability to predestine events and bring about courses of action, then there is no point asking Him for things in prayer (as John Piper has pointed out). This is one of the reasons why I believe there to be an apparent antinomy between God’s Sovereignty and human responsibility, and between theological determinism and God’s predestination and human free will. In both cases, both views are simultaneously but fully true, just as sound is both fully a particle and fully a wave at the same time as J.I. Packer has pointed out in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.
Part of the function of petitionary prayer, as St Thomas Aquinas, Søren Kierkegaard, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell (Bishop of Chelmsford) and C.S. Lewis and others have noted, is bringing our own will and desires into closer alignment with that of God. This is required is, all too often, our desires are impatient, temporary, short-term ones and we do not see the full, long-term picture with all of its ramifications, effects and consequences. We do not see how God granting us one thing must necessarily, within the confines of this world, our freedom and natural laws, bring about certain detrimental effects on others with different desires and in different contexts and situations. Sometimes we have immoral, selfish and short-term, short-sighted desires which God ought to and has a duty to refuse to grant. This can be seen in James 4:2-3: “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions”. If petitionary prayer did not involve aligning our desires with those of God, in answering our petitionary prayers and granting our requests, our petitionary prayers could actually cause God to carry out immoral, evil, wicked and sinful deeds. This, however, would obviously violate His omnibenevolent (all-loving and all-good), just nature and so must be ruled out. Even Jesus had to align His own will with that of His Father’s in the Garden of Gethsemane, and imagine how much more effort we sinful, fallen, broken human beings have to put in to align our will with that of God!
I hope that all of this helps you to understand and see that there is much more to prayer and God’s action in the world than it may seem at first glance. We need to patient and attentive to God and understand that He and His action is beyond our complete understanding. However, this does not mean we cannot trust in Him to provide, support and sustain. Quite the reverse is true as he can grant us more than we could ever think of, conceive or imagine and his methods are far more wide-ranging than ours. He can achieve and attain what seems unattainable to us for our good and that of others.
By Ben Somervell
Bibliography and Further Reading
Chapter 6 of Consolation on Philosophy by Boethius
“Time and Eternity” chapter in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer
Summa by Aquinas and on prayer
On Grace and Free Will by St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
On the Free Choice of the Will by St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Brandon Peterson “Augustine: Advocate of Free Will, Defender of Predestination” by Brandon Peterson
“Predestination: Biblical and Theological Paths” by Matthew Levering
“Petitionary Prayer” journal article by Eleanor Stump: