Petitionary Prayer: Why it Matters
The first time I prayed, I did not believe in God. I had not yet heard about Jesus dying on the cross and the incredible sacrifice that would reshape my entire life. I did not have the slightest inkling of the nature or traits of the God I was praying to, except that I knew it was the Christian God I was trying to reach. I was young, just a preteen, crouching in my bedroom and worrying about the trivial problems I was preoccupied with back then. In my earnestness, I decided it would not do any harm to cover all the bases and talk to this God I had heard others speak about. I shakily and hesitantly prayed my request, in a few short sentences. “Please . . . um . . . God . . . if you’re listening . . . give me what I want . . . and I’ll be good for the rest of my life.” But what could I offer to a God who had everything? I tried different types of bargains, believing that some sort of exchange was required of me. That was it. I did not trace the outcome back to my prayer, and I forgot about it for the next ten or so years.
I find it fascinating now to recall that I had prayed for requests without even firmly believing in God. Praying is often an instinctive reaction when we lose control or undergo extreme pressure. We may pray on a personal level before an important final exam or job interview, or on a vast, grand scale as we respond with “thoughts and prayers” to inexplicable human tragedies. My first personal encounter with prayer revealed this raw need inside of me, even before I met Christ.
Prayer is almost universal across all religions as a means of communicating with God, though religions of than Christianity may focus more on offerings, ceremonies, or different interpretations. Even within Christianity, prayer takes many forms and types. As a rule, Christians normally look to how Jesus taught his disciples how to pray through the model of the Lord’s prayer. A single prayer can include supplication, adoration, confession, and, of course, petition. Petitionary prayer is probably the one we are most used to: it involves a list of wishes or requests we want to see fulfilled. We are instructed to lift up such petitions to God, as we should pray for God to “give us our daily bread.” The popular verse Philippians 4:6, shown by Kindle data to be the most highlighted verse in the Bible, gently advises us: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Scripture also reminds us that nothing is too trivial or insignificant: Paul writes in Ephesians that we should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” For a Christian, prayer is our direct form of communication with God and is therefore meaningful, natural, and sacred. In this essay, I will explore common problems or objections to petitionary prayer concerning its purpose and its efficacy. Why is petitionary prayer necessary? And how are we, if at all, to determine its efficacy?
The motivations for petitionary prayer could be divided into two categories: first, to inform God of our requests for Him, and second, to utilize prayer to influence and affect an outcome. Regarding the first category, if we pray to inform God of our desires, it seems counterintuitive, since God, as our Creator, “knows us far better than we know ourselves”. His omniscience seems to render prayer fruitless and unnecessary. Thus, one might wonder why this kind of prayer remains such a crucial spiritual discipline. The importance of petitionary prayer comes through its internal significance. As C.S. Lewis argued, prayer makes us both “aware of the present fact (of being known to God)” and simultaneously marks an “assent with all our will to be so known.” This “unveiling” means that the “change is in us . . . Instead of merely being known, we show, we tell, we offer ourselves to view.”
In the Christian worldview, the importance of prayer is unparalleled, even though orienting one’s prayer life continues to be a challenge for many. The second question of efficacy is indeed a thorny one. Prayer in the gospels is strikingly effective, and we may therefore expect a similar potency with our petitions. For instance, Jesus and the disciples healed many of the sick through prayer. The question of the effects of prayer has fascinated the scientific community and it received special attention during a renowned $2.4 million study conducted by Dr. Herbert Benson on intercessory prayer. He found that there was little to no effect of prayer on the recovery of his experimental group of cardiac patients, leading many to declare that he had discredited prayer entirely. Such studies, in addition to our own disappointment because of unfulfilled or seemingly ‘fruitless’ prayers, may tempt us to dismiss prayer as an outdated or useless endeavor.
However, the belief in prayer and in God exercising His will remains as robust as ever in light of to several problems with that approach to prayer. The idea that prayer’s effectiveness can be tested at will through a controlled experiment is a crude one. Aside from all the other intervening variables that affected a patient’s wellness, the prayers that were deliberately ordered do not reflect the real, genuine prayers of a Christian. As C.S. Lewis declared, “simply to say prayers is not to pray.” He notes too that the real purpose of such experiments (testing God) and the assigned purpose (for patients to heal) are not aligned. Such ‘empirical’ methods do not provide a shortcut to the truth.
Secondly, there is the simple impossibility of fulfilling all petitions indiscriminately. Though united in its love of Christ, the body of believers can often pray for contradictory outcomes. The prayers of two players on opposing football teams or two interviewees vying for the same job come to mind: though both believers may desire something, it is simply impossible to satisfy both of them. Fulfilling one’s prayer often necessarily means the denial of another.
Thirdly, this desire to quantify the effectiveness of our prayers arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer. Prayer is not a laundry list of our heart’s desires, or a litany of demands to our divine Santa Claus, but rather an active dialogue. As Lewis eloquently expressed, “Prayer is request,” and “the essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted.” The most important part of our prayer, arguably, is not the ability to say the correct literal words, but rather our ability to discern God’s response. God does, in that sense, answer all our prayers, just not always in the way we may want or expect. He could respond with a Yes, He could say No, or He could say Not Now, Wait. We are often caught in the illusion that our ordering and view of the world is the absolute best one—but the Christian faith entails belief in God’s ultimate sovereignty. Can we honestly say that we wish all our prayers were magically fulfilled? That every unfiltered thought or word should be automatically actualized? I have certainly been ashamed of my prayers before. This means that if someone prayed for our harm, it would be done, and likewise, any malicious thoughts we have harbored would come true. If we have such absolute power, there is no arbiter of right and wrong— we have usurped God to become God.
Thus, it may seem that God’s sovereignty in responding to us and determining the outcome negates the need for petitionary prayer or renders it unnecessary. However, that is not the case. God desires a relationship with us, and just like any other human relationship, it can only be strengthened with time and commitment. Over time, we can learn to approach prayer with a different posture as well: laying out our desires but also realizing that our ultimate desire is for God’s best and perfect will to be done. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus struggled with His imminent death and suffering for the sake of the world, He fervently prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.” Even Jesus, with His power and His connection to His Father, prayed. He wished for the end of His suffering, but His greatest desire is to live out His life in accordance to God’s will. His prayer for God’s will to be done reconciles the two.
Of course, it is difficult to know we may not receive our desired outcome. If we are told to wait for what we desire, we often find it hard to stay patient. I am sure many of us are accustomed to disappointments in the high-strung and competitive culture here at Columbia, and some of us may feel jaded about it. But I have found that “not now” and “no” are just as valuable as “yes.” As the psalmist gently reminds us, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” For instance, a year ago, I had my heart set on an internship program that would likely lead to my dream job. Despite tireless preparation during winter break, I did not pass the interview. That night, I was incredibly upset, convinced that I had lost the opportunity and jeopardized my future forever. That small rejection seemed so significant to me, but I ended up finding another position for the summer at home. It was actually a fantastic experience, and I had missed home more than I realized. I spent precious time with family, travelled and reconnected with high school friends, and experienced the work culture in Asia. Eventually, I received the same offer that I was originally denied. In hindisght, I realize that the deferral was not a coincidence. Instead, it was God gently telling me, “Not yet, I have much better plans for you now. Just yield and wait.” Experiencing this deferral firsthand has made me much more assured in His sovereign and perfect plan for my life. I draw comfort and strength from bringing my prayers and petitions to God, trusting in Him and yielding to Him so that He may do His work in my life.
Jiaying Lim (CC ’16) grew up in Singapore before stepping into New York for the first time at the start of freshman year. She loves exploring museums and new restaurants, reading long novels or good books, hanging out with friends, writing, drinking good coffee, and so on. She became a Christian before college but is thankful for her tremendous growth here, and was happy to share that through CC&C.
1 Matthew 6:9–13 NIV.
2 “The Most Popular Passages Readers Love, According to Kindle Data.” The Atlantic, 2 Nov 2014. Accessed 12 Mar 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/11/the-passages-that-readers-love/381373/.
3 Ephesians 6:18.
4 Romans 8:27.
5 C. S. Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (London: Fontana, 1974), 21.
7 Benson, Herbert. “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer.” PubMed, accessed 12 Mar 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567.
10 Matthew 26:42.
11 Psalm 27:14.Tags: CS Lewis, Herbert Benson, prayer, science, suffering