Petitionary Prayer

It is a common introductory problem in theology to think about the purpose of petitionary prayer. If God is all-knowing, what need is there to tell him what you want (Matt 6:8)? Furthermore, if God is perfectly good, then he is already going to do what is in your best interest without your asking. So, the problem of petitionary prayer is that if God is all-knowing and perfectly good, there is no need to ask him. Mormons have taken a different view.

Many traditional Christians have abandoned petitionary prayer as a theologically legitimate practice. Instead, the purpose of prayer is to align one’s will with God’s will (see the LDS Bible Dictionary which uses this sort of language). In such a case, the purpose of prayer is not to ask for what you want, but to discern what God wants. Prayer is a way of transforming the self, not God. Prayer is also about legitimately worshiping God, not just “thanking” him and “asking” him as the LDS prayer formula stipulates, but pondering God’s majesty. Fixed prayers in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are theogically based in this view of God’s relationship to humanity.

Some Latter-day Saint theologians have taken to defending the legitimacy of petitionary prayer. I think that they have done this for two reasons. First, the beginnings of Mormonism are rooted in a petitionary prayer of Joseph Smith. Second, and more theologically, petitionary prayer is seen as a way of causing God to actually intervene in human affairs. Drawing on the LDS depiction of a “finite” God, prayer is seen as a legitimate conversation between God and humans wherein God can be persuaded to act. This kind of prayer is more theurgical than theolatric. The result of this view is a complete abandonment of divine providence. In this view, God can neither have a plan for the world nor is he even actively involved. For some Mormon theologians, God is neither all-knowing, nor (gasp!) perfectly good.

Ultimately, the problem of petitionary prayer is a window onto larger theological debates about the nature of God and the nature of God’s relationship to the world. On one hand, I find something attractive about both models of prayer. On the other hand, both are potentially dangerous. In the traditional model, God’s will is inscrutible and God’s providence must be held accountable for all that happens. In the LDS model, the risk is that there is simply too much freedom for both God and humans. The world seems extremely unstable. Furthermore, God seems to capriciously intervene on what basis? Why does he answer some prayers but not others? Once providence is abandoned, but divine intervention into history is still allowed, God still remains responsible for the prayers that go unanswered. In either model God seems to come off badly.

9 Replies to “Petitionary Prayer”

  1. The result of this view is a complete abandonment of divine providence. In this view, God can neither have a plan for the world nor is he even actively involved.I think this is only true in certain limited hypotheticals. I’m still not certain where I come down on the free will/foreknowledge debate, but folks like Ostler use Libertarian Free Will to beat up on foreknowledge and then consequently espoused a robust view of petionary prayer.I’m not sure that you can’t have a God that knows the future but must experience the petition in order to respond. There is a different between theoretical knowledge and the empirical variant. I know Clark has written about that a fair amount.Also, like Joseph, I am intrigued with the idea that there is a way to get your prayers answered. And like him, I believe it is real.

  2. Petitionary prayer is one of those ideas that believers take for granted but that theologians puzzle over. It seems to run into severe framing problems: People are comfortable thinking God blesses people who pray, but strongly reject the notion that God would curse those who do not pray. But it’s the same thing: if God’s actions are contingent on prayer, then you have to come to grips with both sides of the petitionary prayer coin.For what it’s worth, the True to the Faith article on “Prayer” doesn’t shy away from endorsing petitionary prayer: “As you make a habit of approaching God in prayer, you will come to know Him and draw ever nearer to Him. Your desires will become more like His. You will be able to secure for yourself and for others blessings that He is ready to give if you will but ask in faith.”

  3. Dave,For me, the TTF article is trying to have it both ways. First, I wants to argue that God’s will is the only one that matters and that our job is to conform our will to his. But at the same time it says that we can also persuade God and d secure blessings for ourselves. I’m not sure that both of these things can be true. What do you think?

  4. j.,i think that you’ve hit on exactly the problem. you’re also right that petitionary prayer sure feels right. But is loosing providence too high a price?

  5. I have a long chapter in volume 2 of my work on Exploring Thought. Your assertion that one must give up divine providence to have God respond to petitionary prayer is … well, simple assertion without argument and any kind of support. Far from defeating providence, libertarian free will and god’s acting in relation to our requests actually are quite compatible. Indeed, now I would like to see anything more than mere assertion here. Are there some reasons or arguments that you believe that a God who has the kind of maximal knowledge that I adopt cannot act providentially?

  6. I should add that I actually give arguments to demonstrate that petitionary prayer and the view of God who does not possess absolute foreknowledge are compatible. Indeed, it is the only way that petitionary prayer can be justified. So I am waiting for some reason to believe that God’s not having absolute foreknowledge somehow makes God’s providential involvement impossible. Have you read these arguments are engage them? Have you engaged the considerable literature on the issue? I don’t see any evidence of it — tho perhaps I’m missing something.

  7. Blake,I haven’t read your chapter yet. It’s on the list and I am sure I’ll get to it someday. From your comments, here, I suspect that we may be talking about different things. I don’t think that God’s “providential involvement” is the same thing as “providence.” Either, God is running the world, or God is only “involved” in it. Petitionary prayer and divine involvement are not incompatible in my view, but this is a rather minimal view of what providence entails.

  8. I argue that if one has the views of divine providence held by Augustine, Aquinas or Calvin (not to mention Jonathan Edwards) then prayer is indeed problematic. However, divine involvement is definitely a type of providence in my book and the only kind really worth wanting for individuals seeking a relationship with God. What do you mean by divine providence?

  9. Blake,I study the classical traditions and I am not aware of any uses of “providence” that mean “involvement” only. Rather, they are referring to God’s direction of the world. Are there more modern theologians that are using the attenuated view of providence that you are laying out?

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