Petitionary Prayer

There are passages of scripture that will mess up your thinking if you take them at face value. Take, for example, Mark 11:24. The verse says, “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” If you take this verse to be stating a simple fact, then making a prayer request sounds like writing an already-signed blank check where you simply fill in the amount. Of course, there is qualification contained in the verse. It says you have to believe that you have received what you ask for. One way of understanding that qualification is to view it as a kind of imaginative work in which you pretend that what you requested has already been received and your pretense somehow turns into belief. But whatever the process, the text seems to suggest that you should adopt an attitude of complete confidence that what you have asked for will happen. 

That teaching sounds like what people say when they claim you will get whatever you ask for if you have enough faith. Such a view seems problematic if it means you can compel God to respond to your request. But even if we put that issue aside, are we to assume that there are no limits at all to what you might ask for? Should we take literally the biblical claim that you can ask for a mountain to be moved to another location, or is that an exaggeration to make a point? What if two people pray for the mountain to be moved to different places? Or what if you ask for someone who has cheated you to suffer greatly for it? You would be following a model that can be found in the Psalms where the psalmist asks for vengeance against various enemies. Sometimes these requests are quite specific about how enemies should suffer. So, can you pray that someone you don’t like will have a painful illness and be confident that God will make it happen if you have enough faith? Surely, that can’t be right.

Evidently then, a believable teaching about petitionary prayer must be more complicated than getting whatever you ask for. One way to move toward a more plausible view would be to say that Christian petitions have to include asking in Jesus’s name. However, if you think that adding these words is like a magical formula that if said correctly obligates God to grant the request, that view raises more problems than it solves. But maybe asking in Jesus’s name means asking something that is consistent with the spirit of Jesus. That interpretation might rule out nasty prayers directed toward getting revenge on those who have done you wrong. More generally, asking in Jesus’s name would not authorize capricious requests that come from questionable motives or requests that run contrary to what God is seeking to do. Put more positively, asking in Jesus’s name might be understood to mean reaching a state of mind where you care about the things Jesus cared about more than you care about personal benefits. That account seems very different from the kind of unlimited power to get whatever you ask for that the verse in Mark might suggest. We could say, however, that this verse needs to be understood in the light of an unstated assumption about the right way to ask.

But if you understand petitionary prayer to involve “getting on the same page” as God, that way of thinking opens the door to a different way of thinking about prayer than the standard picture of prayer requests going from an individual to God and God deciding to grant some and reject others. If effective praying means seeking a state of mind where your concerns coincide with what God wants to do, petitionary prayer could be understood as an expression of willingness to affirm and cooperate with God’s action in the world. Rather than thinking of God as saying yes or no in response to our suggestions, we might think of ourselves as saying yes or no to what God would like to accomplish. Our requests for our daily bread or for a cessation of hostilities between warring parties can be viewed as expressions of our desires for things to happen as we know God wants.

Of course, that picture raises the question of why prayers for things we are reasonably confident that God wants are not always granted. I think that the best answer to this question is that we live in a world where what happens is not totally up to God. Created things have been given powers that may block God’s action. So even if an individual has managed to adjust her own desires to what God is seeking to do, there may be other forces that resist God’s purposes. That’s clearly different from the picture that some people hold of God being able to magically produce any result you can imagine. But thinking that what God is able to do in the world may be limited by the presence or absence of available channels for achieving the desired ends helps us to see why God’s will is not always done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Petitionary prayer, as I view it, can be thought of as a way of opening channels that are under your control through which God can act.  What I say in other posts in this section may help to explain this idea. But here I will simply suggest that just as we can sometimes do bodily acts to produce results that accomplish God’s purposes, our focused attention on the healing or wellbeing of another can play a role in producing physical effects that align with God’s purposes. Instead of the sharp contrast we sometimes make between doing something and praying about it, intentionally harmonizing our desires with what God seeks may sometimes be instrumental in getting those desires fulfilled.