Prayer of Petition has to properly understood
I must confess that I feel a good deal of sympathy with the person who formulated this objection. Yes, some Christians do have crude ideas as to how petition works. My first task will be to show where they go wrong. After that, however, I will explain why there is room for prayer of petition in our relationship to God.
John and Theresa are devout Christians. Their eldest son has just completed his technical school and is desperately looking for a job. One day an opportunity arises. A very good company offers first-class employment, but the applicants for the job will be accepted on a competitive basis. They will have to write an entrance examination. John and Theresa pray to God: "Please, almighty God, help Peter pass his exam."
This is a typical example of a popular Christian prayer of petition. It is quite possible that John and Theresa have a somewhat magical idea of how their prayer can make Peter pass the exam. They may imagine that their prayers ascend to heaven and reach the throne of almighty God. As matters stand God, they may think, has not yet decided to make Peter pass the exam. If they were not to pray, God might allow him to fail. But if their prayers ascend to God day after day, God is moved by the anxiety in their hearts and may finally decide to make Peter pass the exam.
Almighty God may do this by arranging the course of events in favour of Peter. God may give Peter an intellectual boost so that he answers correctly. God may soften the heart of the person who marks the papers. God may see to it that, by a stroke of good luck, Peter gets the questions he is able to answer. Moved by the prayers of the parents, God somehow makes Peter pass the exam which otherwise he might have failed.
This is the "making-God-do-a-miracle'' kind of prayer. My grandfather is on the point of dying but if I intercede for him, God may give him an extra ten years. I might have an accident during the journey, but if I pray, God will somehow keep me safe. We might not get enough rain during this season, but if we pray with sufficient faith God may send some showers which we would otherwise not have received. The underlying idea is always the same. Our human petitions persuade God to interfere in the normal course of events by giving us a special favour.
We should reject "divine magic".
If prayer of petition is accompanied by the crude ideas I have just described, it is clearly mythological. Of course, there is a genuine religious element even in mythological thinking. This is the intuitive grasp of our dependence on God which all petitions contain. But, being mythological, the popular concept of petition is at the same time full of anthropomorphisms, of projecting human features onto God. Let us analyse a few of them.
We may reduce God to being some kind of Supermanager who has made a bad job of the world. Our petition helps God to `patch up' some of his mistakes. In this world of ours many people fail exams. By reminding God at the right time of Peter's special case, we give God a chance to patch it up by making Peter pass. Many people fall ill and all of us will die sooner or later, but by putting in a word on behalf of some of our friends, we give God a chance to give some extra life to them. Many regions of this ugly globe on which we live do not receive sufficient rain. But by timely prayer now and again, we help God to prevent some disasters that would otherwise have occurred.
By our prayer of petition we hope that God will do some minor miracles that will take the sharpest edge off our human suffering. Whenever God does the minor miracle, it seems to us that God shows special love to us.
What is left of God in such a concept? How inefficient is God to have made such a rickety world to begin with! How cruel is God since hard-hearted people like us are more easily moved to compassion than God is! How partial since God only helps those for whom his friends pray, and not the many millions about whom no one cares! Atheists and agnostics are quite right in rejecting a God of this nature. Moreover, if this was the true idea of God, we Christians would have no answer concerning human suffering. Christian faith would be in a sorry state if it rested on confidence in this repair-style miracle-working anthropomorphic God.
The right approach to prayer of petition
Our first religious act when encountering God, should be to accept what we are: human beings. We should accept ourselves with all our possibilities and limitations. If God has given us two hands, we should not demand to have four. And suffering is part of our human nature. Because we depend on food, because we age and grow older, because our bodies are frail and weak, we necessarily decay and suffer. Our fundamental disposition should be to accept this condition and all its consequences as part of our nature. When God became human in Jesus Christ, God did not eradicate our human limitations. Rather God lifted up suffering and gave it a new meaning.
Scripture teaches us that God loves every person equally, whether he is rich or poor, young or old, Jew or Gentile. It is a theological blunder to see the special love of God in things we possess: in riches, comfort, fame and health. Jesus teaches just the opposite: "Woe to you rich . . . Blessed are you poor". God shows his/her fundamental love for each person by giving us life, by granting us a free will and so making us an image of God, by calling us to adopted childhood in Christ.
Of course, it is right that we do our utmost to secure our own wellbeing and that of others. But the accidentals of health or sickness, riches or poverty, success or failure, do not bring us nearer to God. Christ wants us not to be anxious about these things and, therefore, not to pray for these accidental things as if they are of primary importance. "Seek rather the Kingdom of heaven and these `accidental' things will be given you in addition" (see: Matthew 6,33).
Christ recommended prayer of petition. But it was not for accidental things he wanted us to pray. When saying that we should ask with great faith, that we should importune God as the unhappy widow did, or as the friend who needed loaves for his guest, Christ is thinking of the graces of the Kingdom which we should pray for. For God is anxious to give us these gifts. If fathers on earth give what is good to their children, "how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (see: Luke 11,13).
When Christ says that the Father will grant `whatever we ask in his name', he does not expect us to ask forrelatively trifling things, such as food, or clothes or health, in his name. He expects us to pray for the gift of "living in him and he in us" and the other petitions expressed on our behalf in his highpriestly prayer (see: John 15,16; 17,1-26).
If we pray for conversion, for grace, for the Holy Spirit, our prayer will certainly be heard. Because through our prayer we predispose ourselves to receive these gifts. We take away the obstacles in ourselves that impede the divine light from entering our inner selves. We provide the psychological soil in which the seed of divine action can bear fruit. In this way, through our prayer of petition, we do not change God, but change ourselves.
Being persons with a free will, we have to open the windows: but the light comes from God, the Sun. On account of our human solidarity also, prayers for religious gifts for others partake to some degree of this inner psychological preparation.
Why we ask God for favours.
Being the creatures we are, we experience the presence of God in every event that happens to us. When things go well, we grasp God's generosity in them. When we suffer, we feel our dependence on God. If such is our fundamental disposition, will there still be room for petitioning God for material favours? Not in a mythological and magical sense, as I have explained. But there will be in other ways.
First, we should not exclude God's freedom. We are free and responsible. So is God. We can achieve many of our objectives in spite of the limitations put on us. So, humanly speaking, can God. There is no reason to exclude God being able to make use of our prayer in ways beyond our immediate understanding, in order to guide a course of events in a particular direction without a crude magical interference with nature. Employing the image of a laser beam that brings photons to oscillate in phase, God's interaction can be understood as the tuning of the divine and human wills to mutual resonance through the collaboration of prayer.
I highly recommend in this context the sensitive discussion of this issue by the scientist-theologian JOHN POLKINGHORNE in Science and Providence, London 1989, esp. pp. 45-68 and 69-76. See also the classical treatment of it in C.S.LEWIS, Miracles, London 1947; Letters to Malcolm, London 1966.).
The accidentals of sickness, drought, failure and death are so upsetting, that it is natural for us to raise spontaneous prayers to God asking him/her to safeguard us from these evils. We do not expect God to do a minor miracle on our behalf. But accepting our human condition and realising God's love whatever may happen, we express our dependence on God in the form of such a petition.
In this case the petition is unconditional as it has the function of expressing our dependence. The utter need we feel becomes a disclosure situation in which we spontaneously reach out to God. God from his/her side opens the way for us to deal with the situation constructively, and perhaps, prepares un unexpected resolution.
A model of prayer of petition
The best example of such prayer is given by Jesus himself. Although he knew he would have to undergo suffering and death, and although he had already accepted this sacrifice, his human nature made him spontaneously pray: "Father, let this chalice pass me by". By praying in this way to his Father, Jesus disposed his human nature to receive the strength it needed for the passion.
As could be expected, Jesus' petition was not granted in the literal sense of the word. He himself did not want it to be granted on his own terms. He said: "But not my will but your will be done" (see: Matthew 26,39; Luke 22,43-44.).
Is this not the pattern for prayer of petition which Jesus wanted to teach us? "May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6,10.).
The remarkable outcome of Jesus' prayer only became apparent in Christ's resurrection. His new life in God was totally unexpected from a human point of view. It made Christ's suffering meaningful. It fulfilled both what God wanted and what Jesus, as a human individual, really wanted in terms of bringing wholeness to the world (see: F. DE GRIJS, `About the question of God's Government of the World', Bijdragen 4 (1989) pp. 358-372).
God's ultimate rule of events often lies beyond our grasp; as it was on Calvary. It means that God will have the last word, and that prayer has been heard and will be answered, in God's own way.
The text in this lesson is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
The video clips are from Journey to the Centre of Love (scriptwriter & executive producer John Wijngaards) which was awarded the GRAND PRIX by the Tenth International Catholic Film Festival held in Warsaw (18-23 May 1995). It also received the prestigious Chris Award at the International Film Festival, Columbus Ohio, in 1997.