“God instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” — Blaise Pascal
“We pray not in order to change the divine disposition but for the sake of acquiring by petitionary prayer what God has disposed to be achieved by prayer.” — St Thomas Aquinas
“When we share in God’s saving love, we understand that every need can become the object of petition. Christ, who assumed all things in order to redeem all things, is glorified by what we ask the Father in his name.” — Cathechism of the Catholic Church #2633
A number of years a go, a Catholic school teacher asked me why we ask God for things if He already knows everything we need. I wrote her a brief email later that I will share part of here.
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There are lots of reasons Christians and Jews give for why we petition God for various things. The core theological principle behind this practice is what I might call God’s proclivity for “shared governance,” i.e. that the eternal God, who created us in His image and likeness, wishes us to freely and actively participate in the unfolding of His providential care for creation.
Because God is not simply raw power, but is love, it is His nature to include in His unlimited power a “space” for our free cooperation (or free rejection) in that power’s exercise. And when the Son of God became man, He enshrined this “space” and made “shared governance” constitutive of all His action by eternally sealing human freedom to His own divine freedom. This blows my mind: In Jesus, God does nothing apart from human free engagement, and all He does is ordered toward evoking love from His free creatures. That said, we must keep in mind that God is always the initiator, and we are the co-operators. Which is why we never would ask God for anything opposed to His will. His governance, our sharing. That’s why we always submit our requests to His final disposition: “God, here is what I would like to see happen, I know you heard me and take it very seriously, but your will be done. Do as you see fit.”
That’s really the whole Our Father in a nutshell, which is really one long string of petitions! (Obviously God digs petitionary prayer is that’s the model He gave us!) The use of “Father” at the start of the prayer reminds us that He’s out for our good and treats us not as slaves but as children. The first three petitions (sanctify your name, your kingdom come, your will be done) simply reiterate: God, it’s all about what you want; do your thing. Then the last four petitions spell out the kind of things God wants to do with us (feed, forgive, don’t let us break under pressure, free from evil). The Our Father sets our “shared governance” mindset for all other petitions.
But there’s something really astonishing in this whole teaching that we cannot take for granted. There’s a priestly dignity the infinite God has given us that we should not take lightly, and should exercise with great reverence and love. Fear and trembling! St John of the Cross says that when we enter into the “union of love” with God, He “loves you with supreme humility and esteem and makes you His equal.” Equal! Not to become another, rival god, but to be allowed to share in everything He is. His life and love and power and beauty and mercy and kindness and fidelity and patience and purity and on and on and on. Even His omnipresence, as bi-location shows us! (I could use that one, God)
One way to show reverence and love for this astonishing privilege of equality expressed through “shared governance” is to utilize it! We should be constantly asking for good from God on behalf of all and for all, all the time. Ceaselessly. If God is invisible light that wishes to be made visible in His infinite colors, then we are the prism He made to reveal to all creation His splendor. If God is invisible water vapor who wishes to water the earth and raise from it food to feed all, then we are the cloud that condenses His life-giving water and sends His rain on the earth. We do these by our lives and by our prayer! That’s a little strange, I know, but it gets at the general idea. 🙂
To not petition God is to sinfully ignore our responsibility and privilege as His co-workers, as His active instruments, and to deny creation the good and mercy and justice and life and every other good thing He planned for others and all to receive through us. Parents who don’t pray for their children (living and deceased) by name every day should mention that in confession. Beginning with our loved ones and extending out to our enemies and everything else. Ask, seek, knock! beg! Plead! Relentlessly! The Scriptures are clear: perservere in petitioning God long and hard, with tears and sweat and sleeplessness. And the more our prayer “costs” us, the greater our capacity becomes to receive what he wishes to give, both for ourselves and on behalf of others. An Orthodox Rabbi I met in Connecticut said to me, as we discussed the meaning of Advent: “We Jews get praying with patience for God to fulfill His promises. Three thousand years praying for Messiah to come, and still we wait.”
And pray big, like St Isaac the Syrian asks us:
What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.