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 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” (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).

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.

  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. ↩︎

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

Text First Published July 1992 · Last Featured on Renovare.org June 2023