A Theology of Petitionary Prayer: Part 1, The Danger of Petitionary Prayer

In my experience, among Christians struggling with doubt, disenchantment, and deconstruction petitionary prayer is a huge stumbling block. 

Some of these problems are metaphysical. As disenchantment encroaches we start to wonder if "anyone is out there" when we pray. So asking God to "do something," to "answer" my prayer, pushes a weakening faith past the breaking point. If you doubt that God exists it's difficult to believe that God acts.

A different metaphysical issue concerns how petitionary prayer "works." As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, we tend to imagine the cosmos as a machine, as a vast causal mechanism. Given this assumption, we struggle to understand how God inserts himself into the chain of cause and effect in response to our prayers. Does God "suspend" the Laws of Nature to answer our prayers? We cannot specify the "causal joint" between God and the world. And lacking that vision, we grow doubtful and confused. 

A third issue concerns views of providence. Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Christians delight in answered prayer, singing hallelujah when some good medical news arrives. And while such gratitude is proper and good, for every answered prayer how many go unanswered? Why was this person healed while others died? The pain we experience with unanswered prayer, especially when we see loved ones suffering or dying, can cause our hearts to break. Especially when we cast a sidelong glance at the answered prayers of others. We can grow angry and resentful that God responds to others while seeming to ignore us.

Which brings us to a final desolation of petitionary prayer. Setting aside metaphysical and theological issues, most of our difficulties with petitionary prayer are intimate and painful. We've cried out to God to save someone we love, to heal someone we care about, and nothing happened. Entire faith communities go down on their knees, passionately beseeching God to act, and the prayers go unanswered. These experiences can derail our faith. They have derailed our faith.

All this brings me to a sad observation: petitionary prayer is a pastoral problem. Stated more strongly, petitionary prayer is spiritually dangerous.

By pastorally problematic and spirituality dangerous I mean that if we invite people into the experience of petitionary prayer, but don't equip them for the desolations and confusions that will follow, then we are actively pulling people into an experience that will unsettle their faith. The waters of petitionary prayer are treacherous and people are not well-served if we don't train them how to run those rapids. 

A lot of us, I think, have learned this, and have, through hard and bitter experience, shifted our prayer lives away from petition toward contemplation. This seems safer and more prudent to us. And yet, should we avoid petition altogether in our prayers? Have we become so jaded, skeptical, and disenchanted that we assume that God "does nothing" in our world? Do we no longer believe in miracles?

These, then, are some of the desolations we experience with petitionary prayer. And in thinking about the pastoral problems and spiritual dangers here, I'd like to offer up a theology of petitionary prayer in this series that I hope might be helpful.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply