Excerpt from Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home

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 naïve 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” (Matt. 7: 7 – 8). 

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.”3 Peti­tion, 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 (Matt. 7: 9 – 11).

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Fos­ter, Richard J. Prayer: Find­ing the Heart’s True Home. Chap­ter 16: Peti­tionary Prayer. HarperCollins.

[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.

Originally published July 1992