Sunday, April 19, 2015

On petitionary prayer

We had some friends over the other evening, and the issue of petitionary prayer came up. Here was one set of questions on the table (in my paraphrase): As Christians we don't believe that Christianity is falsified if you pray for something, even something "reasonable" that seems like it would advance the kingdom of God and that is not selfish, and you don't get it. But in that case, we don't really expect to receive our petitions. So why bother to engage in petitionary prayer? What's the point? Moreover, if you are praying for spiritual strength (e.g., to resist some temptation), and you know that you will have to put in the effort yourself to resist the temptation anyway, why bother praying about it? Why not just do your best to resist the temptation?

Now, it would be simple enough to answer these questions by saying that God tells us to pray for our needs, including our spiritual needs. So do it because it's commanded, end of discussion. Scripture is unequivocal in telling us to engage in petitionary prayer: "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God." (Phil. 4:6) "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;" (Eph. 6:18) "Give us this day our daily bread...and deliver us from evil." (The Lord's Prayer) "You have not because you ask not..." (James 4:2) "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God" (James 1:5). "Pray for us...I beseech you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner." (Hebrews 13:19) "Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation" (Matt. 26:41)

I think, though, that these and other verses give us more information than just a bare commandment. The most important part of this information, mysterious as it must seem, is that in some way we cannot fully understand God has elected to use our prayers as part of the causal chain for bringing about his will in our lives and in the world.

That seems incredibly inefficient. Why should I have to pray for my daily bread? God knows what I need. He could just send it! God knew the good that Paul could do if released from prison. (Assuming that Paul was the author, or one of the authors, of Hebrews.) If it was God's will to release him from prison, why did people need to pray for it? Why should God accomplish his will in any way whatsoever by means of our prayers?

But that question could be asked of anything. God could have spelled out his message by special revelation to each individual on earth, but it pleases him (at least most of the time) by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. (I Cor. 1:21; cf Romans 10:14ff) God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and could provide all the cups of water necessary for every thirsty person, yet instead he promises a blessing to those who give a cup of water in his name. (Mark 9:41)

In other words, one thing that Scripture teaches again and again and again is that God likes to do things "inefficiently." God chooses, of his own free creativity, to make us mysteriously a part of the vast web of causal processes in this world by which to bring about his purposes. And sometimes we can mess up and not do our part. So with prayer. It is just as true of prayer as it is of telling others about Christ, speaking up instead of being silent, or doing your daily work: God has a job for you to do, and if you don't do it, the ball might get dropped. Something might not happen that would otherwise have happened. Oh, to be sure, as with all our sins both of commission and of omission, God can nonetheless bring good out of evil. He is never taken by surprise. But the point is that praying is a form of working for God's kingdom. It is part of what we can and should be doing. It is causal. We don't have to understand precisely how this is so to know that it is so and that this is why God tells us to pray.

Notice that this is true even of praying for our own needs. It is true of praying for a job, for example. Presumably if one is looking for a job one is working to that end. If you believe that God is glorified by your applying for jobs, that it is a worthwhile endeavor (a reasonable enough proposition!), then you can see that God is also glorified by your praying both for a job and for wisdom in the entire process of application and decision-making.

With that point made about the real causal role of prayer, I know that there is no danger that what follows will be interpreted as saying, "The only point of prayer is that it changes you." That isn't the only point of prayer. But it is one point of prayer, including petitionary prayer. There is no spiritual exercise that is the equivalent of prayer. Nothing else can be substituted for it. An important aspect of that spiritual exercise is genuinely, sincerely asking for something from God, thinking of God as a great King who loves you, who can grant your request, and asking for it with no irony or reservation, while at the same time submitting yourself to his will if he should choose not to grant it. That is hard. It is one of the hardest things for us Christians to do. (We have Jesus' own example of it in the Garden.) In doing this we speak to the Father as to a Person. (If that offends the classical theists in my audience, so be it.) We understand that prayer is not just a rote exercise to go through. It is not just a series of motions. It is a real transaction in a real world that we cannot see. We are speaking to Someone and asking Him for something. But at the same time, we are not treating the concrete thing we request as a right. We are not saying, "I deserve this." We are submitting to Him completely, realizing that we may not get what we ask, or at least not in any visible or sensible form.

I suggest that if one tries this for a few months, repeatedly, it will make a difference to one's spiritual character.

What this also means is that petitionary prayer shouldn't be separated off into a little box from adoration, thanksgiving, and confession of sins. That's presumably part of why the Apostle Paul uses the expression "prayer and supplication with thanksgiving." Psychologically, this makes sense. If you are asking for something from God in a concentrated and sincere way, recognizing that you are speaking to a real Personal Being, but at the same time recognizing how far above you God is, then petition will be constantly passing in and out of adoration and thanksgiving. As for confession, that will be there as well, because it will be extremely difficult to come to God in that humbleness and openness of mind without recognizing that one has things one must confess.

Note, too, that confessing sins is not an option. Christians are required to do it, to be repeatedly confessing, repenting, and seeking forgiveness, to be getting their hearts right with God. So we must pray for that reason if no other, and in the process of confessing sins, asking forgiveness, and thanking and praising God, it would be quite artificial to exclude more ordinary petitionary requests.

All of this may sound rather too obvious, or thin, or preachy. But it's what I've got to offer on this urgent, practical issue.

Prayer for the Christian is like water--an absolute need. In fact, it is so whether you feel that way or not. If you make a habit of prayer, setting aside time for it and doing it with all your might, opening your heart to God, I predict that you will come to feel it to be a need as well as knowing it to be. That can only be a good thing.


Kristor said...

Thanks, Lydia - great post. But I'm confused. Why would a classical theist be offended at the notion that the Father is a person?

Lydia McGrew said...

My understanding from many interactions with Ed Feser is that one is permitted to call God "personal" but not to call Him either "a being" or "a person." I see your point--that if one focuses on _one_ person of the Trinity (such as the Father) this might obviate their concern, but I can only say that I have never heard *any* circumstance in which it's allegedly okay to say, "God is a person" even if one means that one is praying to the Father.

John said...

Thanks, Lydia. This is written all over your post, but allow me to say it outright: Christianity is a relationship. Relationships require communication. And all of our lives experienced on this testy little planet are preparation for a much fuller enjoyment of our relationship with God.

I encourage you to take in some of the extraordinary lessons on prayer by Francis Chan. In one, he reflected on a preaching event for which he prayed that God would enhance the event with some miraculous, amazing display of power. God never did, and you need to hear his understanding of "why not."

Another sermon tells of amazing answers received to prayers--I mean really amazing. His sermons are available online.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, John. And you are right about a relationship. I avoided the word in the main post because I find that people who have the kinds of questions we were discussing are sometimes made impatient by the word. They feel that it is of no practical relevance to them because the relationship with God "feels" so one-way. Many of us don't have any experience of God's speaking to us, and if we strive for one we are likely to suspect that we have emotionally generated anything that does happen. So if one _starts_ by saying, "Christianity is a relationship," I fear one risks getting eyerolls or impatient responses like, "Yeah, but what does that really man when God doesn't talk back to you?"

So I was in a sense trying to give an impression of what a relationship approach to prayer is like *on the assumption* that it will never seem like God talks back to us. In a sense, I'm trying to answer the question: Even granting that we never feel that God speaks to us personally, and even if we personally often don't see what seem like clear answers to our prayers, how can we approach prayer as a vital part of a relationship with a real person?

John said...

Well, Christianity without relationship is sort of like marriage without relationship. Both, unavoidably, are "covenant" relationships, with Christianity turning on the dynamic of total mutual surrender (the Cross).

An excerpt from my book might be helpful:

My wife, Becky, is for me a living “poster child” for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus lives in her. She reads Scripture religiously, and lives it. She has a prayer life that she describes as dialog, in which God speaks back. This offends people, who might wish for God to speak to her in a voice loud enough for us all to hear. She often equates listening to her “intuition”, with listening to God. I might write all this off myself, were not her insights so consistently on target. Becky is gifted for interpersonal ministry in ways that rival people with six-year college degrees (yet she attended no institution of higher learning).
I should clarify what her God-dialog is all about. It is not an actual voice; but the message is as clear to her as though it were. The message starts with God’s Word, which points us in some directions and away from others, as a guidance system. Then there is the ongoing rush of circumstantial situations, over which Becky sees God as the controlling force . Thus, “what happens” also demonstrates His will, as does Scripture. Then, there is also the inner spirit of herself, shaped carefully by many years of Bible reading, worship of God, prayer, experience gained in walking the Christian walk, and ministry to others. She searches all these for insight in today’s experience, and she finds it. I think she means by “intuition” what God’s people in Scripture more commonly call “wisdom.” Perhaps it is humility that keeps Becky from claiming wisdom for herself, so I will gladly claim it for her. She is a wise woman, a wise Christian.

Tony said...

Thanks, John, for such a good description of how a person can be in relationship to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And thanks, especially, to Lydia for pointing out that that is not the ONLY way a good, holy Christian can be in a true relationship to God. Indeed, He works so many different ways that we are wise to be cautious about it, cautious about letting one way to stand for all ways. For not all are called to be apostles, or teachers, or prophets, or healers.

I know people who receive fairly direct answers to prayer, if not on a daily basis then at least monthly. And others who have a deep prayer life who never have an experience of 'hearing' Him even to the extent of, say, guided intuition. Yet they know that they are deeply loved and love Him in response, with His grace. It seems to me that some of God's great ones are called specifically to forego that felt sense of one-on-one with Him, as a part of their reaching a still higher place of union with Him. His ways are inscrutable in this respect, we should not expect to sort them out this side of heaven.

That said, it is critically important to keep that relationship with God grounded in something objective. Written revelation - the Bible - is as necessary as prayer, for it too is God speaking to us, and doing so without our worry as to whether we "heard it" rightly - it is protected from that defect. I have seen Christians listen so intently (and so incautiously) to their inward experiences from prayer that they forget to test it with better-grounded truth, and they run astray off into eastern mysticism and new age nonsense. The tradition of the Church is that demons can cause us to have fake experiences of communion with God, and draw us astray by that. Fortunately, if we pray and remain humble even about our prayer life, and test it, such attacks cannot overcome us - or rather, they cannot overcome God's power to protect us.

John said...

No, Tony, I would not expect homogeneity of spiritual experience among Christians. Certain commonalities should be expected, but not identical paths.

I do, however, have great concern when I hear of "church members" who somehow swerve so as to miss certain essential and irreducible (which is what I meant by "unavoidably" in my second response to Lydia) aspects of a covenant relationship. In some churches, the omissions go unnoticed.

Especially, there is no side-stepping the Cross. And all religious experience and commitments that are prior and to the side of this, however laudable, leave one outside of covenant. God calls us through the Gospel (2 Thess. 2:14), which is to be not merely believed, but obeyed. The Cross calls for a response and the Scriptures indicate the direction, contour, and dynamics of the relationship that may be considered authentic, saving, gifted with Spirit, and Christian.

When Jesus declared, "And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it," He was not providing one way among many. All who follow Him will pass these experiential gates. The rest still need a Savior.

Lydia McGrew said...

John, I'm not sure what you mean by "experiential gates." I would be very, very hesitant to make a particular type of experience the touchstone of deciding whether someone is saved or not. Commitment, yes. Experience, I'm inclined to say, no. One does indeed need a personal commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, but it seems to me that that is possible while having no particular type of experience at all, except the experience of knowing that you are committed and living accordingly (including a life of prayer and conscious submission to God's will).

John said...

Sorry, Lydia, but I can’t help but react to those reputed—whether by church affiliation, or self-identification, or whatever—to be Christians, yet who struggle not only with getting an answer to prayer, but who would even find an ill-fit of Christianity understood in terms of relationship. Are we not right to go straight to their experience (or non-experience) with the Cross? Would this experience, and their response to Jesus—resulting in their own death-of-self-leading-to-His-new-life-in-them—be anything less than the sine qua non of a valid claim to Christianity? Can we imagine that encounter failing to yield faith, repentance from sin, confession of His Lordship, and baptism for remission of sins and reception of the Spirit for one claiming to be a Christian? And could anyone emerge from such conversionary experience with anything less than a relational bond with the Lord, one that embraces the powerful communication of prayer that readily becomes natural and comfortable?

The aim here is not to criticize or denigrate their spiritual attainments, but to have the clarity to recognize “church members” who do not yet know the Lord Jesus, and so surely have that need. Every attainment of theirs—their commitment and devotions—should be celebrated as something the Lord appreciates, but even the godly Cornelius needed to hear the Gospel and be baptized. It was not his godly attributes that made him a Christian; but his encounter with Christ that led to a relationship anchored in two crosses—the Cross that Jesus took for him and the one that he took up for Him.

Sadly, there are many “churches” who would claim as members those who have never been to the Cross for salvation, “churches” whose pews are as in need of evangelism as the remotest pagans. I would urge you to bring them to the Cross and wrap them in loving bonds of faithful covenant—His life given for them, and theirs given in return. Then, speak of prayer. I am sending this wrapped in my own prayers for you, Lydia, that nothing said here will cause pain or draw a backlash.

Lydia McGrew said...

Despite my fierce on-line reputation, John (to some degree well-deserved), I don't generally backlash too much at earnest and non-trollish commentators, which you certainly are, John!

I do suspect that we disagree, though. My own experience has been that "By their fruit ye shall know them" sometimes does apply positively to people who "find an ill-fit of Christianity understood in terms of relationship."

Certainly such an ill-fit _can_ indicate that the person has never been regenerated, has never committed his life to Jesus Christ, in evangelical terms. But it need not indicate this.

Ah, someone needs my computer. I will probably write more on this a bit later, but that is in a nutshell what I was intending to say anyway.

Tony said...

Like Lydia, I am cautious about signing on to what you say John, here:

Are we not right to go straight to their experience (or non-experience) with the Cross? Would this experience, and their response to Jesus—resulting in their own death-of-self-leading-to-His-new-life-in-them—be anything less than the sine qua non of a valid claim to Christianity? Can we imagine that encounter failing to yield faith, repentance from sin, confession of His Lordship, and baptism for remission of sins and reception of the Spirit for one claiming to be a Christian?

I strongly suspect that part of the problem in a discussion of this sort is that it is very difficult to come up with an agreed terminology for internal experience that is very hard to put into words to begin with.

Here is my problem with tying the commitment to the Cross, the habitually lived death-to-self in favor of life with Christ, being based explicitly on a felt "encounter" with Jesus Christ. I am not sure I can put it into words sufficiently clear, but I can try.

Take a well-raised child in a Christian family, who absorbs and lives the outward form of Christian life from infancy. He knows WHAT he is expected to live, because he has heard (and then read) the Bible frequently, and has discussed it regularly, and seen his parents live it daily. So far, so good. In my experience, then, there are, at an absolute minimum, at least 2 distinct pathways forward from childhood. On the one hand, a teen or young adult might get more and more enamored of "the world" as the world shows its superficial delights to him, and he may for a time give up any commitment to living as a Christian at all, or (at least a couple decades ago) pretend for family peace but only on the outside. And then, later, God can use illness, accidents, violence, or other big changes to bring this person to his knees, and he may then experience the welcome given to the prodigal son, an interior peace with Jesus that is clearly different from the worldly sense of well-being, after which he re-commits himself to Christ and the Cross. With all that implies in obedience to Christ.

Alternatively, the child becoming an adult may gradually grow and grow and enrich his Christian life to encompass, by choice and personal preference rather than by familial expectations, a developed prayer life, a daily consent to live for Christ. At certain points along the way, this young adult may have some interior experiences of an emotional comfort and peace with Jesus, but through careful reading he knows that these experiences are passing and are not at all the reason why we pray or adhere to Christ. Or he may not have such experiences, or he may go years and years and still more years between such experiences - all the while re-energizing his faith and his commitment to the Cross, his commitment letting God's grace overcome his sinfulness, with daily prayer and (at least weekly) public worship.

I would be very worried at trying to describe the latter scenario as somehow less authentically Christian, or less real as Christian, compared to the former, merely because in the latter the young man has fewer (or even no) events in which he can say he experienced an "encounter" with Christ. Jesus says to Thomas "you believe because you have seen. Blessed are they who have not seen but believe." My sense of that is that it applies not only to physical vision, but also to interior vision: blessed are those who, by God's grace, are moved to believe and to adhere to Christ, but who have not been supplemented in that gift with the additional evidence of an interior encounter.

That interior sense experience is one of the works of grace in some people. It is not an absolutely critical feature of a living faith. What is critical is the active belief, the living faith, a faith that "produces good fruit' because the person is a living branch growing on the Vine.

Lydia McGrew said...

The other thing is that a sense of peace can be a purely psychological phenomenon.

I think it is a good thing to urge and encourage people to develop what I might call "their own side" of a relationship with Christ: Prayer, including extemporaneous, petitionary prayer, meditation on God's presence and on his Word, "practice of the presence of God," examination of conscience, confession of sins, frequent reorientation of oneself toward God and reaffirmation of one's dedication to him.--all of that.

And that "side" of a personal relationship is something that you can experience in the mundane sense that you know whether you are making the effort to do these things, to commit this time, to speak to God, and so forth.

What I would never dictate is that one is likely to sense "God's side" of the personal relationship. I know too many people who are _clearly_ God's children, clearly regenerate, being used of God, who simply never sense this at all. And speaking for myself, I usually doubt it when I think that I am sensing it. I'm a skeptical person like that!

If I encounter someone who does not even cultivate his "own side" of a personal relationship, it may just be a psychological block, or lack of teaching, or having been put off by some Christian culture that over-emphasized feelings. It needn't be a lack of an *objective* state of relationship with God. That has to be discerned on a case-by-case basis and is usually not my business to conclude anyway, though I may have my ideas, suspicions, or worries in individual cases.

Finally, I suspect that the topic of sacramentalism is lurking around the edges here. If one believes in any kind of sacramental theology with objective grace, then a part of one's relationship with God is eating a small wafer and/or drinking a sip of wine while in the right state of heart. Which communicates objective grace. And that is (I think) a rather radically different notion of what could even be _part_ of a "personal relationship" from what a non-sacramentalist will agree with.

Lydia McGrew said...

Another interesting issue here is the issue of people who are emotionally disabled. Here I am thinking of those with Asperger's Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders. Or someone like David Wood, whose testimony I linked in an earlier post.

These sorts of people are simply lacking the range of emotions that normal people have. It's a kind of emotional color blindness. They are also intensely literal-minded. If you say to an Aspie, "You should have a relationship with God, but you will never audibly hear God talking to you," it will seem like you are talking nonsense.

That doesn't mean that I think one should not _attempt_ to teach such a person to pray and to cultivate the aspects of relationship with God that I have discussed in earlier comments, but it has to be handled very delicately. And the results will be quite different from anything one could expect from an emotionally normal person, even for a high-functioning Aspie. Such people live even their _human_ relationships on the basis of will and a firm concept of right and wrong and dedication to duty rather than on the basis of a felt sense of love or presence. It seems therefore all the more likely that this will be the case in their relationship with God. Yet it would be dangerously problematic to argue that people with Asperger's Syndrome cannot be saved!

John said...

I urge caution in suggesting loopholes, exceptions, sidesteps, and dodges to the plainly radical call of Jesus, a call that comes to us through His Cross and a call that would have us take up our own crosses as the only response to be considered "walking worthily of our calling." Others short of this, said He, cannot be His disciples. Our cleverest arguments to blunt His clear desire reach reductio absurdum. There may be others that each of us would surely like to be considered Christians, but it should be the Lord who sets the terms.

Jake Freivald said...

The lack of "personal experience" with God isn't new, and arguably starts with Jesus himself when He said, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" People who have not felt a personal relationship with God may still be His followers: Mother Teresa, who had a "dry spell" of 40+ years, surely accepted the "plainly radical call of Jesus" and took up her own cross in a way that outshines many of those who claim a more personal, emotional, tangible relation with Jesus. 

She was a believer, too: the lack of personal experience in her prayer life doesn't change what she believed. And isn't that what we're called to do -- to believe? Not to have a personal experience of Jesus, or whatever this discussion is about? Aren't those (some of) the terms the Lord set?