Petitionary Prayer by Richard J Foster
All the passages below are taken from Richard J. Foster’s book “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.” It was published in 1992.
Whether we like it or not, asking is the rule of the Kingdom.
-C. H. Spurgeon
Do you know why the mighty God of the universe chooses to answer prayer? It is because his children ask. God delights in our asking. He is pleased at our asking. His heart is warmed by our asking.
OUR STAPLE DIET
When our asking is for ourselves it is called petition; when it is on behalf of others it is called intercession. Asking is at the heart of both experiences.
We must never negate or demean this aspect of our prayer experience. Some have suggested, for example, that while the less discerning will continue to appeal to God for aid, the real masters of the spiritual life go beyond petition to adoring God’s essence with no needs or requests whatever. In this view our asking represents a more crude and naive form of prayer, while adoration and contemplation are a more enlightened and high-minded approach, since they are free from any egocentric demands.
This, I submit to you, is a false spirituality. Petitionary Prayer remains primary throughout our lives because we are forever dependent upon God. It is something that we never really “get beyond,” nor should we even want to. In fact, the Hebrew and Greek words that are generally used for prayer mean “to request” or “to make a petition.”1 The Bible itself is full of Petitionary Prayer and unabashedly recommends it to us.
When the disciples requested instruction about prayer, Jesus gave them the greatest prayer ever uttered—what we today call the Lord’s Prayer—and it is mainly petitionary. He urged his disciples to “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8 NRSV).
I know that many of our petitions seem immature and self-absorbed. In one sense it would be less problematic to stay with worship and adoration and contemplation. These things feel elevated, stately, noble. And Christianity would be, intellectually, a far easier religion if it kept us on this “lofty” plane. Then we would not have to be dealing constantly with the frustration of unanswered prayer and the embarrassment of those who seek to engineer God for their own ends. Yes, we might like the less crude realms of adoration and contemplation, but, as P. T. Forsyth observes, “Petitions that are less than pure can only be purified by petition.”2 Besides, Jesus keeps drawing us into the most basic relationship of child and parent, to asking and receiving. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “It is quite wrong to subordinate oratio to contemplatio, as if vocal prayer were more for beginners and contemplative prayer more for the advanced, for each pole determines and presupposes the other; the one leads directly to the other.”3Petition, then, is not a lower form of prayer. It is our staple diet. In a childlike expression of faith we bring our daily needs and desires to our heavenly Father. None of us would give our children a stone if they asked for bread, says Jesus. None of us would give them a snake if they requested fish. No, even we who are filled with our own self-centered agendas respect the most fundamental codes of parent-child relationships. All the more, then, God who lovingly respects us and joyfully gives to us when we ask
(Matthew 7:9-11 NRSV).
TWO COMMON PROBLEMS
By focusing on this basic parent-child relationship, we get light on two of the most common problems in Petitionary Prayer. The first is the very reasonable question of why we should ask God for things when he already knows our needs. The most straightforward answer to this question is simply that God likes to be asked. We like our children to ask us for things that we already know they need because the very asking enhances and deepens the relationship. P. T. Forsyth notes, “Love loves to be told what it knows already. … It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”4
Besides, I am not so sure that God knows everything about our petition. It seems that God has freely chosen to allow the dynamic of the relationship to determine what we will eventually ask. The fact that God is all-knowing—omniscient, as we say—does not preclude his withholding judgment on matters in which the decision depends on the give and take of the relationship. More will be said about this in a later chapter. For now, be encouraged that God desires authentic dialogue, and that as we speak what is on our hearts, we are sharing real information that God is deeply interested in.
A second problem with Petitionary Prayer arises from those of tender heart. It is the deference of spirit that says, in effect, “I shouldn’t bother God with the petty details of my life. There are issues of far greater consequence in the world than my little needs:”
But here we must see the Abba heart of God. In one important sense nothing is more important to him than the anxiety we feel over the surgery we must face tomorrow and the exasperation we feel today over our child’s irresponsibility and the desperation we feel over the plight of our aging parents. These are matters of great magnitude to him because they are matters of great magnitude to us. It is a false humility to stand back and not share our deepest needs. His heart is wounded by our reticence. Just as we long for our own children to share with us the petty details of their day at school, so God longs to hear from us the smallest matters of our lives. It delights him when we share.
THE PERPLEXITY OF UNANSWERED PRAYER
We now come to what has to be one of the most troubling issues of Petitionary Prayer, namely, unanswered prayer. We must not rush too quickly here to solve this problem with glib talk about God answering with “yes, no, or wait” and the like. If we are honest, and not just trying to cover up our insecurity, we must all admit to deep perplexity over these things. C. S. Lewis notes, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted.”5
The problem is intensified when we consider the lavish promises to answers contained in the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus. Consider, for example, his startling statement found in Mark 11:24: “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” The gloriousness of the promise is tempered by the empirical data of our personal prayer lives. What can we say to this vexing problem?
The first thing we must say is to confess that we have a genuine, not an imagined, problem. Any supposed solutions that I or anyone else gives are only partial and will not make the problem go away. I do not know why the heartfelt petition of a terminally ill person or a homeless person goes unanswered. Frankly, I wish it were otherwise. We stand here under the mystery of the ways of God, and we are peering through a glass darkly. Only in the age to come will we understand fully, even as we are fully understood (1 Corinthians 13:12 NRSV).
Actually, it is from the vantage point of the age to come—to the extent that we can understand that perspective—that we get our first hint of a solution to the problem of unanswered prayer. P. T. Forsyth observes perceptively, “We shall come one day to a heaven where we shall gratefully know that God’s great refusals were sometimes the true answers to our truest prayer.”6 Many times in our shortsightedness we ask for things that are not in our best interests. At other times the answer to our prayers would be detrimental to others, or mean the refusal of their prayers, or both. Then there are times when our prayers are simply self-contradictory, a “grant me patience quickly” kind of prayer. And finally, sometimes our prayers, if answered, would do us in. We simply are not yet prepared for what we have asked.
In such cases, and many others like them, it is God’s grace and mercy that prevent our prayers from being answered. God withholds his gifts from us for our good. We could not handle what might come if our requests were granted. So we must thank God that many of our prayers go unanswered. C. S. Lewis writes, “If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?”7
Another reality to keep in mind is the simple fact that many times our prayers are indeed answered, but we lack the eyes to see it. God understands the deeper intent of our prayers and so responds to this greater need, which, in its time and in its way, solves our specific prayer concern. We may ask for greater faith so that we can heal others, but God, who understands human need far better than we do, gives us greater compassion so that we can weep with others. A part of our petition must always be for an increasing discernment so that we can see things as God sees them.
We must also confess how little we know of the ways and timing of God. Sometimes we, like the disciples of old, want to rain down fire from heaven upon God’s enemies. (Of course they always turn out to be our enemies, too, which works out quite well for us.) But Jesus makes it abundantly clear that fire from heaven is simply not God’s way (Luke 9:54). On other occasions our finger-tapping anxiety is simply out of timing with the ever-patient mercy of the Eternal.
Then, too, we must remember that, since Petitionary Prayer centers on us and our needs, we are not disinterested parties. It is far easier to pray with clarity regarding matters that have no direct impact upon us than regarding our infected toe. This must never keep us from praying for our own needs, for we are commanded to do so, but it should remind us that we are capable of infinite self-deception.
There is one further thing I want to say about unanswered prayer, though I hesitate to mention it for fear of being misunderstood. It is the fact that sin hinders our prayers. By saying this I am not endorsing the highly misleading cliche “God never hears a sinner’s prayer.” If that were actually the case, we would all be in real trouble! Nor do I mean that we must attain some special level of holiness before the Almighty will respond to our pleas. Simple observation alone will show that God is quite lavish in his answering mercy to all kinds and sorts of people, irrespective of their sanctity. My own personal history confirms as much.
No, I mean something quite different when I say that sin hinders our prayers. I mean that our sin, by its very nature, separates us from God, rupturing the intimate fellowship and dulling our spiritual sensitivities. We become nearsighted and develop thickened eardrums, if you will. The result is an inability to discern the heart of God and an asking that is askew. We ask wrongly, to spend it on our passions, as James reminds us (James 4:3 NRSV). Therefore our prayers are hindered.
God tells me, for example, to act lovingly toward my neighbor, perhaps inviting him over for dinner. I decide against it mainly because I am mad at my neighbor because his tree dropped leaves in my yard! God reminds me about my resentment toward my neighbor more than once. I do nothing. In time, I do not hear God speaking to me about my neighbor any more, and I think to myself, “Good, I got away with that one!” Oh, no, I didn’t. Deafness has come, in part. Blindness has come, in part. The dulling of our spiritual sensitivities is something I hope we will come to fear.
I know that these few comments will not erase the dilemma you feel over unanswered prayer. Many times I, too, stand in perplexity at prayers that seem to be ignored. It may encourage us to know that we have a Savior who, in the darkness of Gethsemane, shouldered the weight of unanswered prayer and who, in his moment of greatest agony, shared our confused question: “Why?”
For sheer power and majesty, no prayer can equal the Paternoster, the “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9-13 NRSV). As I mentioned earlier we today call it the Lord’s Prayer, though that distinction more rightly belongs to the high priestly prayer of Jesus in the Upper Room (John 17). The Paternoster is the prayer given by the Lord for disciples of the Lord, namely, you and me.
The Paternoster is really a total prayer. Its concerns embrace the whole world, from the coming of the kingdom to daily bread. Large things and small things, spiritual things and material things, inward things and outward things—nothing is beyond the purview of this prayer.
It is lifted up to God in every conceivable setting. It rises from the altars of the great cathedrals and from obscure shanties in unknown places. It is spoken by both children and kings. It is prayed at weddings and deathbeds alike. The rich and the poor, the intelligent and the illiterate, the simple and the wise—all speak forth this prayer. As I prayed it this morning when I met with my spiritual formation group, I was joining with the voices of millions around the world who pray in this way each day. It is such a complete prayer that it seems to reach all peoples at all times in all places.
The Lord’s Prayer is essentially petitionary—asking. Adoration is present at both the beginning and the end, but petition is present through the main body of the prayer. Of its seven perfectly crafted requests, three relate to personal petition. These three entreaties can be gathered up into three words: give, forgive, and deliver. Together they form a paradigm for Petitionary Prayer by which we can conjugate all the verbs of our individual asking.
If we were not so familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, we would be astonished at the petition for daily bread. If it had come from the lips of any other than Jesus himself, we would consider it an intrusion of materialism upon the refined realm of prayer. But here it is smack in the middle of the greatest of prayers: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
When we think about it for a moment, though, we realize that this prayer is completely consistent with Jesus’ pattern of living, for he occupied himself with the trivialities of humankind. He provided wine for those who were celebrating, food for those who were hungry, rest for those who were weary (John 2:1-12; 6:1-14; Mark 6:31 NRSV). He went out of his way to find the “little people”: the poor, the sick, the powerless. So it is fully in order that he invites us to pray for daily bread.
In doing so Jesus has transfigured the trivialities of everyday life. Try to imagine what our prayer experience would be like if he had forbidden us to ask for the little things. What if the only things we were allowed to talk about were the weighty matters, the important things, the profound issues? We would be orphaned in the cosmos, cold, and terribly alone. But the opposite is true: he welcomes us with our 1,001 trifles, for they are each important to him.
We pray for daily bread by taking to God those trifles that make up the bulk of our days. Are we unable to find a babysitter to care for the children while we are at work? Well, then, we pray for daily babysitters. Do we need a little space to think things out? Then we pray for daily solitude and rest. Is it a warm sweater or gloves that we need because of the bitter cold? We ask for clothing, day by day. Are we struggling with a relationship at work or at home? We ask for patience and wisdom and compassion—daily, hourly. This is how we pray for daily bread.
I am constantly amazed that the petition “give” precedes the petition “forgive” and not vice versa. It is as if God’s graciousness in giving to us allows us to see the enormous debt we owe and leads us to cry out, “Forgive us our debts.”
The debts are enormous indeed. It is not just the things that we do, though those by themselves are enough. It is also the things we leave undone. We commit sins of commission and sins of omission. The mountain of offenses grows too high for us—its very weight threatens to crush the life out of us.
It is just when we are gasping for breath that Jesus invites us to pray: “Forgive us our debts.” He teaches us in this way because he knows how very much God loves to forgive. It is the one thing he yearns to do, aches to do, rushes to do. At the very heart of the universe is God’s desire to give and to forgive.
But in this petition we are faced with a quandary. We are taught to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors:” It is a conditional request. We are forgiven as we forgive. And, as if to intensify the problem, this is the only petition that Jesus feels compelled to amplify upon: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15 NRSV). Why is this? It is not that God begrudges his forgiveness, nor is it so hard to get God to forgive that we must demonstrate good faith by showing how well we can first forgive others. No, not at all. It is simply that by the very nature of the created order we must give in order to receive. I cannot, for instance, receive love if I do not give love. People may try to offer me love, but if resentment and vindictiveness fill my heart, their offers will roll off me like water off a duck’s back. If my fists are clenched and my arms folded tightly around myself, I cannot hold anything.
But once I give love, I am a candidate for receiving love. Once I open my hands, I can receive. As Saint Augustine says, “God gives where he finds empty hands.”8
So it is with forgiveness. As long as the only cry heard among us is for vengeance, there can be no reconciliation. If our hearts are so narrow as to see only how others have hurt and offended us, we cannot see how we have offended God and so find no need to seek forgiveness. If we are always calculating in our hearts how much this one or that one has violated our rights, by the very nature of things we will not be able to pray this prayer.
In the affairs of human beings there is a vicious circle of retaliation: you gore my ox, and I’ll gore your ox; you hurt me, and I’ll hurt you in return. Now the giving of forgiveness is so essential because it breaks this law of retribution. We are offended, and, instead of offending in return, we forgive. (Be assured that we are able to do this only because of the supreme act of forgiveness at Golgotha, which once and for all broke the back of the cycle of retaliation.) When we do, when we forgive, it unleashes a flood of forgiving graces from heaven and among human beings.
If forgiving is so important, we really need to ask the question: what is forgiveness? There is great confusion on this matter today, and therefore we must first understand what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness does not mean that we will cease to hurt. The wounds are deep, and we may hurt for a very long time. Just because we continue to experience emotional pain does not mean that we have failed to forgive.
Forgiveness does not mean that we will forget. That would do violence to our rational faculties. Helmut Thielicke, a German pastor who endured the darkest days of the Nazi Third Reich, says, “One should never mention the words `forgive’ and `forget’ in the same breath.”9 No, we remember, but in forgiving we no longer use the memory against others.
Forgiveness is not pretending that the offense did not really matter. It did matter, and it does matter, and there is no use pretending otherwise. The offense is real, but when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior.
Forgiveness is not acting as if things are just the same as before the offense. We must face the fact that things will never be the same. By the grace of God they can be a thousand times better, but they will never again be the same.
What then is forgiveness? It is a miracle of grace whereby the offense no longer separates. If a husband ignores his wife, valuing business and all other things above her, he has sinned against her. The offense is real, and the hurt is real. A sacred trust has been broken. We speak rightly when we say that something has come between them. She will never forget this violation of respect. Even in old age she may feel an icy chill at the memory of this disregard.
But forgiveness means that this real and horrible offense shall not separate us. Forgiveness means that we will no longer use the offense to drive a wedge between us, hurting and injuring one another. Forgiveness means that the power of love that holds us together is greater than the power of the offense that separates us. That is forgiveness. In forgiveness we are releasing our offenders so that they are no longer bound to us. In a very real sense we are freeing them to receive God’s grace. We are also inviting our offenders back into the circle of fellowship.
One final word regarding the petition directly: God has bound himself to forgive when we forgive. Perhaps you have felt deeply the load of guilt at your offense against heaven. You have been uneasy and unsure of your pardon from God. You long for some assurance that will give you peace. Well, here is assurance given by the highest authority. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son, guarantees your acquittal: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14 NRSV).
This third petition is perhaps the most important of them all. It contains both a negative (lead us not into temptation) and a positive (but deliver us from evil).
The first part of the petition has disturbed many. How can God tempt us or lead us into temptation? The Greek word itself means “trials” or “trying circumstances,” and the only time God tries us is when there is something in our hearts that needs revealing. For example, Judas was a man who had difficulty with money, which was precisely why Jesus made him the treasurer of the apostolic band. In time, what was in the heart of Judas came to light.
Therefore the prayer “lead us not into temptation” means this: “Lord, may there be nothing in me that will force you to put me to the test in order to reveal what is in my heart.” We want to be progressing in the realms of transformation with no hidden sins so that God will not be forced to put us to the test.
We must not here be thinking of the temptations of childhood, what Martin Luther called “puppy-sins.”10 No, it is the adult sins with which we must concern ourselves. We, like Jesus in the wilderness, will be tempted with power and influence and the opportunity to help others without reference to God. How much good we could accomplish if we only had those things, we may think. These desires in our heart are the seeds of destruction. In the Lord’s Prayer we are asking God to remove them from our hearts so that he will never have to put us to the test.
Now with regard to the petition “deliver us from evil”: as much as we might like it otherwise, the original text is quite clear that Jesus is urging us to pray for rescue not from evil in a generic sense but from the evil one, namely, Satan. I know that does not sit well in our modern and postmodern understanding of reality, but it is there nevertheless.
Helmut Thielicke preached on this very passage right after the Allied occupation of his hometown of Stuttgart near the end of the Second World War. Commenting on the modern, “properly spiritualized `concept of evil,’ ” he wrote:
Dear friends, in our time we have had far too much contact with demonic powers;
we have sensed and seen how men and whole movements have been corrupted and controlled by mysterious, abysmal powers, leading them where they had no intention of going;
we have observed all too often how an alien spirit can ride people and change the very substance of men who before may have been quite decent and reasonable persons, driving them to brutalities, delusions of power, and fits of madness of which they never appeared to be capable before;
year by year we have seen an increasingly poisonous atmosphere settling down upon our globe and we sense how real and almost tangible are the evil spirits in the air, seeing an invisible hand passing an invisible cup of poison from nation to nation and throwing them into confusion.11
In the intervening decades have we not seen enough of the hideous and the horrible to speak without embarrassment the phrase of Martin Luther: “The prince of darkness grim”? You may remember that Luther continues, “We tremble not for him/ His rage we can endure,/ For lo, his doom is sure:/ One little word shall fell him.”12 This is the outcome of the prayer for deliverance.
The Cambridge professor Herbert Farmer reminds us that “if prayer is the heart of religion, then petition is the heart of prayer “13 Without Petitionary Prayer we have a truncated prayer life. May I remind us all once again how very much God delights in our asking, looking for an excuse to give.
Dear Father, I don’t want to treat you like Santa Claus, but I do need to ask things of you. Give me, please, food to eat today. I’m not asking for tomorrow, but I am asking for today. Please forgive me for the infinite offenses to your goodness that I have committed today… this hour. I’m not even aware of most of them. I live too unaware. That in itself is a sin against heaven. I’m sorry. Increase my awareness.
And in my ignorance if I have asked for things that would really be destructive, please, do not give them to me—do not lead me into temptation. Do protect me from the evil one.
For Jesus’ sake.—Amen. [178-190]
1. C. W. F. Smith, “Prayer,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962), p. 858.
2. Forsyth, Soul of Prayer, p. 38.
3. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), p. 251.
4. Forsyth, Soul of Prayer, p. 63.
5. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, p. 58.
6. Forsyth, Soul of Prayer, p. 14.
7. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, p. 28.
8. As quoted in C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, ed. Clyde S. Kilby (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969), p. 73
9. Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer (New York: Harper & Brothers, r96o), p. no.
10. As quoted in Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father, p. n9.
11. Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father, p. 133.
12. Hymns for the Family of God, Hymn 118.
13. H. H. Farmer, The World and God (London: Nisbet, 1935), p. 129