Prayers of Petition: The Questions
I was asked, several weeks ago, to talk about petitionary prayer, the kind of prayer in which God’s direct intervention is requested to heal or help, to protect or promote someone we love. I hope you will keep in mind that any single sermon on prayer can only make a beginning with a topic that has provoked a thousand books. Because asking God for miraculous help is such a controversial topic, I kept hearing the famous warning all last week that “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but an honest fool is safer with you than any audience I know, so here goes. Our focus will be on that single kind of prayer in which God is asked to override natural laws, because the several other kinds of prayer do not raise so many questions.
Like the prayer of submission , for example, in which one says, “I surrender my life into your hands, O God, and trust your love.” You don’t get many arguments about that kind of prayer. Or about the prayer of praise : “How glorious is thy name, Eternal God, how mighty are thy works.” Not many questions raised about the prayer of gratitude : “We are thankful, dear Lord, for food and friends and all good things in life.” Or about the prayer of confession:: “Forgive us, God of mercy, for causing harm to others.”
Any results expected from those kinds of prayers will likely be subjective — that is, we look inside ourselves for some proof that they have been effective. The painful questions arise about petitionary prayer, in which the results are so often expected to be external, and therefore more easily and quickly demonstrable: some proof that God has broken into the reality we know and intervened to alter the course of physical events. Prayers, for example, like these: My father’s home is in the path of a deadly tornado; please cause it to veer away and spare his life and property. My son drives a jeep in Kosovo; please protect him from the landmines that have killed others. My daughter is making a risky flight today; please don’t let anything happen to her. My husband’s cancer is called hopeless; I ask for a miracle.
Let’s start on the simplest possible level in considering the questions raised by prayers of petition. I recall hearing, years ago, one group of city-dwelling Christians pray for continued dry weather while they finished building their church, while on the very same Sunday morning a group of nearby Christian farmers were praying urgently for immediate rain to save their crops. What is God to do? Are we to believe that the God of the universe manipulates highs and lows and jet streams so as to honor special requests? God is forever being asked to do contradictory things: I have left the hospital room of a man terminally ill and in dreadful pain, who was praying to die quickly, and returned to a waiting room where his tearful family was pleading with God to keep him alive. Prayers forever rise at cross-purposes.
I was in a boxing ring one night with an opponent who was a fellow church member. We were in our late teens, both young enough to make trivial requests of God, so we both prayed to win. Not just to fight fairly or compassionately, but to win. Since God could not give the desired answer to both those prayers, one of us went home that night knowing his prayer had been rejected. Those prayers were shallow, but questions arise on higher levels. If I pray for protection from some terrible epidemic, and escape, while around me others are dying from it who also prayed for protection, what am I to conclude? That I had a better connection? That God favored me over others? Or that I was simply lucky, while some others were not? No sensitive, thoughtful person has ever been able to avoid pondering those questions.
During my years in St. Louis I often had reason to be in the lung cancer ward at Barnes Hospital. Most of the patients wanted prayers said in their behalf, and they got them — from me, from their friends, from other ministers, priests and rabbis. A thoughtful person who cares about all of them will be plagued by questions: Does it mean, when one survives, that in response to prayer God has stepped in to arrest the disease in one case, but for reasons we cannot know is unwilling to step in and save others for whom whole churches and synagogues are meeting to pray on a regular schedule? From what we can see, the results of petitionary prayers are such a mix of success and failure that a few are thankful for what they perceive as special favor, while a great many more suffer the anguish of rejection.
A young woman I know, who is campus minister at Wichita State, has painful personal knowledge of unanswered prayers. So when she heard a local TV station telling about people miraculously healed through prayer, she wrote this letter to the local newspaper: “Why would the Almighty heal some and not others? Does the Creator have favorites? Is there a ‘right prayer’ that the Almighty responds to? Does a person have to reach a certain level of faith in order to have his or her requests granted?….. I am concerned,” she writes, “that we are so quick to chase….. supernatural miracles that we demean the plight of those who must endure living with unanswered prayers and a God who is silent.”
This minister knows from experience that when the school bus plunges over a cliff and only one child survives, the parents of that child almost always say, “The Lord chose to spare our child. We prayed about it when we first heard of the crash, and God answered our prayers.” But she would ask — my campus minister friend — Doesn’t the fortunate parent know that all the other parents who heard about the crash also prayed that their loved ones had been spared? In which case, to say that God intervened to save one chlld is the same as saying that God chose not to intervene to save the others. And so, in our joyous relief at hearing that our loved one has been spared, we sometimes say thoughtless things that make God an incomprehensible puppeteer, pulling the strings in ways that seem both capricious and cruel.
A famous London preacher named Leslie Weatherhead, who certainly wrestled with this subject as much as anyone I know, makes three points about petitionary prayer and the God to whom it is directed. First, that God is not an insurance company despite the faith of a certain Old Testament Jew who wrote the 91st Psalm. That author flatly promises that the true believer will be delivered from sickness and persecution: no need to worry about bad things happening, no need to be afraid of pestilence or plague. “A thousand may fall at your side,” he says, “ten thousand, but you it shall not touch…..You shall walk safely even on poisonous snakes” I presume this exuberant old poet must have believed what he wrote, but it’s simply not true — as most of us find out fairly soon in life’s adventure. If those promises were literally fulfilled, religion would become an insurance company. Everybody would rush to pay the premium of petitionary prayer and count on a guaranteed payoff.
This was a fairly common hope during the brief life of Jesus, but he knew better. He did not say, “Peter, follow me and your fishing business will always prosper. You and your family will be immune from disease. Nothing will hurt you.” What he did say, to Peter and the rest, went like this: “All the bad things that hurt other people will hurt you, and on top of that, people will…..drive you from one town to another….[even] kill you…..” And that prediction came true. Jesus knew that you could pay all the premiums, and even double them for good measure, and still not be protected from the bad things that happen to good people. [Matt.10, etc.]
Weatherhead’s second point about petitionary prayer is that God does not play favorites although, consciously or not, our attitudes often assume the opposite. He illlustrates with a true story. When the City Temple where he preached in London was burned down during the bombing blitz of World War, the secretary of another church in London — a very famous church — wrote to his church secretary and said, “The destruction of your church is a direct judgment of God. Surely you are not surprised, with a heretic like Weatherhead in the pulpit.” Weatherhead must have been tempted to respond with arguments against such a view of God, but he opted for silence. As it turned out, no lesson from him was necessary: within the next few days the other woman’s church was also bombed and burned. It is very risky business to interpret events as if one knows the mind of God.
Weatherhead’s third claim is that God is not a magician who steps in on occasion to subvert the natural laws that help us make sense of life. For instance, he says, if God really did stop one person in midflight who was falling off a cliff, and lift that person up on angel’s wings as the 91st Psalm promises, but allowed gravity to take its course in the case of someone else, we would be living in a chaotic and insane world of magic where no one could ever learn anything. Weatherhead says we understand that if fire breaks out, people are wise to get water on it as quickly as possible, it being more religious at that moment to use water than to use prayer. We know, he says, that if a man’s teeth give him trouble, he does not pray — he goes to the dentist.
Weatherhead was one of the most devout Christian believers I have ever encountered, and has no interest in merely trying to shock people. He is simply being honest about what he has observed over a long, long lifetime of ministry. He recognizes the problems surrounding petitionary prayer when he recalls the millions who packed churches to pray for peace in 1914, only to have the horrors of World War 1 break out, and the millions more who did the same thing again in the late 30’s, only to see the start of the even greater horrors of World War 2, a war in which at least 30 million mothers prayed passionately but unsuccessfully that their sons would not die. My mother prayed like that in my behalf….and I came home. My friend Howie Hanson’s mother prayed the same way for her son — he died rescuing a wounded soldier on the front lines. So how does it work, exactly?
It would be wonderful if our troubling questions were answered in the Bible, but the Bible illustrates the same dilemmas that bother us — illustrates them even in words attributed to Jesus himself. On one occasion, for example, he says flatly, “Ask, and it will be given to you,” which makes petitionary prayer seem a kind of open-and-shut case. Yet all of us, and every believer who has ever lived, have asked for certain things in prayer with passion and persistence, and what was wanted was not granted. And to complicate matters a little more, Jesus himself had the same experience. Let’s talk about that for a moment.
We are told that in the face of his imminent and horrifying death, Jesus prayed with such passion that his sweat was like great drops of blood falling to the ground. We often read words without really feeling them, but if we read these words properly they describe something awful. The words appear to be those of an appalled eyewitness, and if they don’t mean that Jesus was truly terrified at what was about to happen to him, then language ceases to have meaning. And yet this man who said, “Ask, and you will receive,” begged passionately, “Let this cup pass from me — save me from this horror,” and he did not get the answer he wanted.
And if I know how to read, his words clearly hint that he knew prayers are not always answered even the best of us . So he says, “Nevertheless, (but on the other hand ) not my will but thine be done.” That “nevertheless” is a recognition of the limitations of prayer, an acknowledgement that what he so desperately wants he may not get, so he surrenders his own will in advance. That prayer, and those of millions of others through history, are proof enough that prayers are not always answered in the ways we wish.
There may, of course, be other results from the act of praying. The prayer of Jesus failed of its primary purpose, but one could argue that it may have brought him, finally, the strength and serenity to offer — a few hours later — his forgiveness to those who killed him, and to say with confidence in his dyning moment, “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.” This, alone, would be reason enough to pray, but the logical mind will always be puzzled by the different outcomes of even the most urgent petitionary prayers. I prayed long ago in behalf of my beloved sister, diagnosed with terminal illness. She died anyway. I prayed for a mere acquaintance in similar desperate straits. He lived. Was God responsible for the different results of prayer, or were other factors at work? Logic has no answer, and those who continue to pray do so from that power, at once so powerful and so fragile, which we call faith.
But faith and reason are often in severe conflict, and perhaps that isn’t all bad. A faith never touched by troubled doubt may become so arrogant that honesat people are put off by it. Most of us become less positive about some things as years and experiences pile up. It was at the end of 50 years of ministry, that the man I have referred to earlier, Leslie Weatherhead, wrote a tremendously helpful book whose title must have shocked many people. He called it The Christian Agnostic , and the title pointed directly to himself as a lifelong student of faith who came at last to confess how often he had to say about some of faith’s most urgent questions, “I don’t know….I shall try to walk in the ways of my Lord, but about some of the theological issues, I don’t know.”
With regard to many topics dealt with in that book, I stand where he does, and I wonder if this is not true of a great many honest and thoughtful people — that we start out with a large bagful of certainties and drop most of them along the roadways of observation and experience, until we can only say at last in trustful surrender, “Not my will, but thine be done.” My own faith journey has brought me to the place where I say far more prayers of submission and praise, of gratitude and confession, than I do of petition, asking God for special favors. Whether that is wisdom or weakness I cannot be sure, so I respect anyone present whose prayers are bolder than mine.
The disciple who wrote the book of James was certainly bolder than I. He spoke confidently of how the prophet Elijah prayed it should not rain, and not a drop fell for three and a half years, and how at the end of that time he prayed again, and rain began to fall. He believed that old tale from the faith history of his people, but there are certainly plenty of fine Christian people who doubt it. And when he goes on to say without qualification that if one is sick, the prayer of faith will save that person, logic tells us this cannot be unequivocally true, and we are plunged once more into the age-old struggle between what is promised and what happens.
The things I have been saying will make sense, I hope, of how I responded recently to the mother of Patrick Jones in the last moments after all the machinery was withdrawn that was keeping him technically alive. As she walked beside me down the hall to say goodbye to her son, she guessed that someone might have asked me to say a prayer, and with a lifetime of honesty that even her breaking heart could not cancel, she looked up at me and said, “I have a hard time with prayer.” I knew what she meant, this bright tough-minded little woman who had lost a husband far too early in her marriage, who had seen her only son suffer often from life’s cruel prejudices, and was now losing him early, too, despite all our prayers. “I have a hard time with prayer” — she thought I ought to know. I will always remember the surprise in her face when I said, “I understand. ” Time on that sad short journey for only two words: “I understand.” But she knew exactly what I meant, and there was a great relief in her voice when she said, “You do?”
I had said, “I understand.” What would you have said?