To the outsider, Christian doctrine gives the appearance of having many contradictions. A common example concerns the Christian practice of petitionary prayer. The objection goes something like this, “If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then why would we pray to Him? If something is good and part of His plan, isn’t He going to do it anyway? How could a mere creature ‘suggest’ to God what He should do?” We must admit from the outset that this line of thinking is a slippery slope. It turns out not to be an argument against prayer per se, but an argument against us doing anything since God will do it anyway. Nevertheless, the question about petitionary prayer is a good one, especially when asked in a true spirit of inquiry (rather than merely trying to “debunk” Christianity). Therefore this question deserves a well formulated response.
If we turn to the teachings of Our Lord, the spirit of our interlocutor appears to be something that He had in mind during His preaching. While giving the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, when addressing petitionary prayer says that “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8). Despite the knowledge God has of what we need, Jesus still commands His followers to “[A]sk and it will be given to you…If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him” (Mt 7:7,11). Based on this, we can conclude definitively that God both knows what we need and that we must ask. It remains then for us to understand why this might be so.
We might begin our inquiry by looking at the principle of causality with respect to God Himself. Because God is omnipotent, we can say that God is the primary cause of all that is. This manifests itself through His Providence, that is, He has a plan and the power to carry out His plan in exactly the manner He intends. Despite this power, He will everywhere throughout creation use secondary causes to bring about the desired effects. This includes not only using something like the law of gravity to bring about His will, but also the wind or even free will decisions of His creatures. He might intend to heal someone from illness and rather than miraculously intervening, He uses the skill of a doctor in aiding the body to heal itself. While we clearly differentiate between the miraculous healing and the natural healing, both have God as their author. It is only in the miraculous is He also an actor in the drama. It is also helpful to point out that when there is a “natural” healing of the patient God used not only the doctor but also the body’s natural healing faculties. Therefore God uses not just single secondary causes but multiple causes to bring about a given effect.
What does this have to do with petitionary prayer? Prayer simply is another cause in bringing about an effect. In other words when a given person is sick, God has ordained that the cause of his healing is not just medicine and the body’s natural healing faculties, but prayer as well. It is those three causes (at least) that bring about the effect. Each is built into God’s plan as a singular cause and therefore all three are necessary for the healing of the patient.
It is not just the outsider that struggles with seeing the use of petitionary prayer. Many Christians look upon it as a lower form of prayer and therefore as something to be left behind. But very often what they are really questioning is the purpose. There is nothing “spiritual” about setting petitionary prayer aside because you don’t think it works. No matter what level of prayer you have achieved, petitionary prayer is never something that can be left off. With growth in the levels of prayer, there will be a corresponding increase in the role petitionary prayer will play. One of the fruits of mental prayer is to “put on the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) so that we develop the habit of asking for exactly the right thing at the right time in the right way. This is why St. James can confidently assert that the “prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).
Prayer, even petitionary prayer, is primarily about relationship. God wants us to ask so that we know where it came from. He does this not so that we will pat Him on the back, but so that we will concretely experience His love for us. He wants us to know how much He loves us and there is no better way than for Him to give us something after we ask for it, especially when we ask boldly for things that seem impossible. Gratitude, while it is directed to God, is primarily for our own benefit. The more often we are aware of God’s action in our life as an experience of His Fatherly care, the more convinced we are of His love. If things just appeared without ever being asked for, we would begin to forget about the Giver. It is not without accident in a culture of such material wealth that petitionary prayer has fallen into disuse.
As a necessary tangent it is worth mentioning that there is nothing noble about not praying for yourself. It really betrays a hidden sense of pride—“I have everything I need and therefore I will pray for others.” At the very least, if God really does know what we need before we ask, shouldn’t we ask Him what it is that we really need? In other words, perhaps our greatest need is to know what we need so that we can ask for it and so that He may give it to us. We should pray for ourselves because very often what others need more than anything else is that we become holier.
Some of this is also caused by our own thinking that there is a limitation on the number of Divine withdrawals we can make each day. With this limit in place, we want to make sure others are taken care of. But we aren’t somehow limited as to the number of things we can ask for. God is beyond generous and so “we should put all our cares before the Lord” (1 Pt 5:7).
There is also the habit of thinking that we should only pray for those things that we need; for the things we might like or want, we are on our own. Certainly there is a hierarchy of sorts related to what we should ask God for so that we do not lose sight of the heavenly treasure. But God wants us to ask for the things we want as well. He cares about our temporal happiness too, especially when we acknowledge Him as the benefactor. When Jesus turned the water into wine, it was not based on any absolute need. Instead He produced a superabundance of 520 liters of wine for a private party to help us to see the depth of His generosity, even of temporal goods. While this is in no way an endorsement of the “health and wealth Gospel” which creates an unhealthy attachment to temporal goods, material things beyond mere biological needs can be a good. I can remember a number of years ago one of my sons wanted a pet frog. I didn’t want him to have a pet frog so I foolishly told him to pray for it. He did and when we came home there was a huge frog sitting in the driveway. When he got out of the car, the frog started hopping toward him. He had a pet frog like he asked and there was no question where it came from—Deo Gratias.
Pascal once said that “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” In other words prayer raises our dignity by allowing us to share in God’s power of being primary cause. In this way it is our most potent work because by exercising it we are most like God. God speaks and things happen. His words are His actions. So too when we speak in prayer, things happen merely by our words. We hold great power in our tongues, especially when our prayers are uttered in the name of Jesus.