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Often in discussion about prayer, the topic quickly turns to one matter in particular: petitioning God. We ask God for things in prayer. Jesus himself seems to encourage this in the canonical gospels, where he is reported as saying, “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7.) Later in the same passage he remarks, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:9-11.) Doesn’t this give us reason to think that prayer is about petitioning God for things in the expectation that he will grant them to those who ask in faith?
My answer is: yes, and no. Or, to be more precise, yes, we should take seriously what Christ is reported as saying in this biblical passage (and the parallels elsewhere in the canonical gospels); but, no, this does not necessarily mean we should think of petitionary prayer as about seeking to “change the mind of God.” Why not? Because it is not clear (to me at least) that we are in a position to change the mind of God. Suppose we think that God ordains all that comes to pass, including our actions. Many Christian thinkers of the past have thought something like this is true, on the basis of biblical passages like Ephesians 1, Romans 9, and Prov. 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap; but its every decision is from the LORD.” Well, if God ordains all that comes to pass, how might our petitions affect the mind of God? It is difficult to see how this might be the case. For, as the psalmist tells us “before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” (Psalm 139: 4.)
Standard ways of thinking about petitioning God seems to depend on what is sometimes called a two-way contingency. At the moment of prayer, we think a certain outcome extremely likely, and pray that God would intervene to grant a different outcome. Maybe we think that our school grades are likely to be poor, and pray that God will raise them. Or, maybe we worry that the cat is lost, and pray for its safe return. There are many, many other circumstances we could cite as examples from the trivial to the extremely serious. In each case the assumption is that somehow my prayer can affect the outcome. But perhaps that is a mistaken way of thinking about petitioning God. Perhaps a more careful way of thinking about petitionary prayer involves conceiving of it as us bringing our desires into line with God’s will, rather than us attempting through prayer to “change” God’s mind.
This may be thought a rather unlikely approach to petitionary prayer. But consider the Lord’s Prayer, which Christ taught his disciples when they asked him how they should pray. Examination of this prayer turns up some interesting results. The first line says, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” No petition here. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Notice here that the prayer is for God’s kingdom and will, not for my program or concern. “Your will be done,” not “my will be done.” This is followed by “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Here we seem to have something more like the sort of petitions we expect. If we ask God for our daily bread and for our sins to be forgiven, aren’t we asking him to do something that he would otherwise not do? However, if the Christian is reconciled to God through the work of Christ, then all our trespasses are already forgiven. So why ask for forgiveness again? Could it be that these are not petitions asking God to change his mind, as it were, but a way of bringing to mind things that are true about our relationship to God? He will look after those who trust in him (we might think). He will forgive us our sins because of the atoning work of Christ. He doesn’t “lead us into temptation”, and he does “deliver us from evil” via Christ.
Thinking about prayer can be tough work, and there is much to be done in this area. In fact, careful scholarship on this topic may end up taking us in directions we hadn’t expected in advance. Yet if this is a topic that is important—and surely it is vital for any person of faith—then it is time well-spent. If petitionary prayer is more to do with bringing our own wills into line with God’s will rather than changing God’s mind, then we will need to think again about what we believe we are doing when we petition God—and that may be a good and helpful thing.