What is petitionary prayer? Petitionary prayer is a specific form of prayer aimed at making requests of God. They make requests of God for answers to life’s questions and concerns. They are also pleas for God to be the sole responsible agent to act on behalf of the one who is praying. Petitionary prayers can be offered on a small and personal scale for oneself or for others, or they may involve requests on a larger scale that concern changing undesirable circumstances within society or, indeed, the world as a whole.
While there are petitionary prayers that ask God to continue the wonderful work that he is already doing, I define the traditional understanding of the typical petitionary prayer as talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand.
We have all heard such petitionary prayers:
- “God, pour out your love on aunt Mary. Please save her.”
- “God, root out the hatred, prejudice, and bigotry in our country.”
- “God, give the doctors wisdom.”
- “God, give my dad traveling mercies as he travels across state tomorrow.”
Such beautiful pleas come from sincere hearts desperately praying for God to intervene in the lives of those they love. But does petitionary prayer offered on behalf of another effect any real change? Or, are they ineffective? I have to lean toward the latter. Why? Because I believe God is uncontrolling love.
One of the pitfalls of the traditional model of petitionary prayer is that it tends to ask God to love or change others without considering other dynamics and agencies like a person’s free will. Advocates of traditional prayer typically view God as an autocrat. That is, God is in utmost control, has absolute power, and is the only one who is keeping blessings from his people. Therefore, the more we cajole God with prayer, the more likely God will be to cease being passive, get off his throne, and engage in the loving action desired.
Sharing one’s heart with God is a beautiful and relational act. However, we distort God’s image when we repeatedly pray for people or situations, portraying God as a stingy God who withholds his love until we pray a certain number of times or achieve a certain head count on a prayer chain. We distort his image when we make prayer about us and God and forget to take into account the freedom and agency of the other people involved.
God’s power is paradoxically uncontrolling, loving power. The Apostle Paul wrote that the “weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). As powerful as God’s boundless love is, it appears weak because God invites cooperation to accomplish his purposes. But God’s empowering and healing presence, which always non-coercively woos and invites us toward shalom, is stronger than the forceful, controlling, manipulating, and narcissistic love of human beings. It is true that God’s loving and weak power can get the job done much more slowly than more forceful and coercive approaches, but it is the only power able to sustain lasting and liberating change.
Just because God is not in unilateral control, however, does not mean God is unable to exercise any kind of control at all. God is not passive and powerless. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word control can mean “the power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events.” I suggest God lovingly and powerfully influences us by inviting, empowering, inspiring, filling, convicting, leading, comforting, healing, and challenging us toward ever-increasing experiences of shalom. While many people experience God’s active love without realizing it, God’s influence can become magnified with individuals who have “ears to hear” (Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8) and who open their hearts in faith.
God is deeply immanent— that is, profoundly close—and intimate. God does not step into time and intervene on occasion only when we pray fervently for him to do so. She is always close, always moving, always on mission, always loving, calling, challenging, encouraging, comforting, and convicting, moment to moment.
God is never passive but is always in motion, loving to his fullest extent while respecting our free will and other agencies in the process. God is always the smartest, wisest, most loving, and most personable agent in the room. He knows how to love better than anyone. He is an expert, a virtuoso. God always serenades the universe through his Spirit and captivates those who lend an ear. God’s love is trustworthy; it never fails. Every moment pulsates with the love of God.
Saint Patrick, who lived in the fifth century, is Ireland’s patron saint and one of its most famous missionaries. He had remarkable insight into the immanence of God in Christ. Here is an excerpt from one of his prayers:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit,
Christ when I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Let’s get practical. I believe basic needs are needs for God to love, heal, save, and deliver from the most fundamental obstacles to human flourishing. For example, a basic need is to be free from poverty. God never desires that people be deprived of sustenance and starve to death. Another basic need is to be free from racism and oppression. It is never God’s will for people to suffer discrimination because of the way they look, for example, or because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, and so on. Other basic needs include the necessity of a world free from violence and genocide and a world in which healing from devastating injuries and accidents can occur. A basic spiritual need is one of salvation. God always desires people to be saved and to know his love intimately.
I know this is a bold statement, but if people believe that praying to God in a certain manner, at a certain volume, and with certain words will convince God to single-handedly root out prejudice, reduce hate crimes, solve the problem of homelessness, heal drug addicts, stop people from committing arson, stop rapes from occurring, and so on, they are engaging in magical thinking and superstition of the worst kind.
God always seeks to lovingly meet the basic needs of humanity and the rest of his creation. Moment to moment, God offers pathways to meet those needs. God’s primary medium for providing for basic needs is people. Remember, God has an open-door policy. God continually looks for open-hearted faith on the earth and seeks the cooperation of human beings to co-steward creation toward shalom. While the motivation to pray common, petitionary prayers for the basic needs of others is pure, God is already actively seeking to meet those needs. God isn’t keeping us from shalom; we are, or those other agencies we have no control over are.
Because God’s love is uncontrolling and humans are free to make choices, I have reconsidered my view of petitionary prayer. I call this proposed model for petitionary prayer “conspiring prayer.” The English word conspire comes from the Latin word conspirare, which literally means “to breathe together” and figuratively “to act in harmony toward a common end.” In today’s usage, the word conspire has a negative connotation, which is to plot with someone to do something wrong or evil; but conspiring prayer combines both of the former meanings. Conspiring prayer is performed with God rather than to God.
Conspiring prayer is a form of prayer where we create space in our busy lives to align our hearts with God’s heart, where our spirit and God’s Spirit breathe harmoniously together, and where we plot together to subversively overcome evil with acts of love and goodness (Romans 12:21). This subversive, sacred practice calls forth thankful, open-hearted listeners who humbly petition and partner with God to become divine echoes, committed to bring forth shalom in the world.
The most transformative prayers are not those by which we attempt to change God, but those in which we open ourselves up to God as the body of Christ. Through them, God can change and transform us so we can become “imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1) and work for the transformation of the world around us.
So often, we cry out to God to move mightily in our loved ones’ lives or to move mightily in the midst of catastrophe, and we ask, “God, where are you?” Ironically, God is asking, “Where are you?” The answers to our prayers for friends, neighbors, loved ones, and nations are not found in a movement of God alone. They are found in God moving in and through us as Her hands and feet.
Will we answer the call?