The Blog of Jack Holloway

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Petitionary Prayer: What is it Good for?

Prayer is often thought to be something that doesn't affect what will actually turn out. Because God already knows what he is going to do, so it is said, prayer is for our benefit, our own change, rather than changing what will occur.

Prayer is also often treated like a vending machine; insert a prayer, out comes a blessing. God is a genie in a bottle, to whom we can go to with any request for him to fill.

With these construals of prayer, it is widely taken for granted or trivialized. I often get the feeling in prayer groups that we're all praying for stuff to happen but we don't actually think anything is going to come from it.

Prayer has become a ritual to which we ascribe power on a surface level, but we don't use it in such a way that we take seriously the power it has.

A problem I think we have is that we pray without acknowledging any limits to our prayers, resulting in unrealistic prayers. Treating God like a genie in a bottle who can do anything for us trivializes prayer, because it doesn't ring true. We don't experience prayer that way. I do not experience the effectiveness of my prayers the same way I experience the effectiveness of a dollar when I use it to buy a Coke from a vending machine. Because of the dissonance between idea and experience--between what is thought about prayer and what the reality is--the power of prayer is demeaned, and prayer becomes just something that we do. Ask for it in prayer because that's what Christians do, but don't expect anything.

I think this trivialization could be changed if we thought about prayer more realistically. In an attempt to do so, I would like to highlight a couple of major limitations on prayer that we seldom acknowledge.
Disclaimer: Talk of what God can or cannot do must not be taken to mean I am questioning God's actual ability. I assume God's omnipotence. However, there are certain things God cannot do within the framework which he himself has set--that is, within the boundaries he set on himself and the natural order. There's a difference between the power God possesses and the power he exercises.
1. God cannot violate the free will of human beings

By saying 'Yes' to free will for humans, God inevitably said 'No' to absolute control; he chose to give humans quite a bit of control over what occurs. Thus, when we pray, we must take into account that God cannot just do anything we ask of him. Consider David Basinger's words:
God so values the inherent integrity of significant human freedom . . . that he will not as a general rule force his created moral agents to perform actions that they do not freely desire to perform. . . . [I] doubt that he would override the freedom of one individual primarily because he was freely asked to do so by another.(1)
For example, if a friend of mine is going into a job interview, I cannot realistically pray that God will simply have the employer hire him/her, as if God is going to overrule the employer's free will and give my friend a job. Put yourself in the employer's position; would God override your freedom and control your actions to accomplish a certain end?

We do not see God doing this in Scripture. Consider these examples:
All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations. Isaiah 65:2
I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?' Ezekiel 33:11
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Matthew 23:37
The Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves. Luke 7:30
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Acts 7:51
These verses point to the reality of human freedom, and how often that freedom can oppose the will of God; and if God wants people to have freedom, there's only so much he can do in a particular situation.

2. God cannot violate the free will of spiritual beings

This one is often overlooked by Christians, but it's a big one. Walter Wink says,
Prayer involves not just God and people, but God and people and the Powers. What God is able to do in the world is hindered, to a considerable extent, by the rebelliousness, resistance, and self-interest of the Powers exercising their freedom under God.(2)
A striking example of this is found in Daniel 10, in which an angel comes to Daniel in a vision and says:
Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. vv.12-13
This passage tells us that, when Daniel prayed, an angel was dispatched to meet his need, but was held up by an evil being! And it was so bad that had to call in for back-up. This, he says, is why it took so long for Daniel's prayer to be addressed.

Have you ever heard that passage talked about in a sermon on prayer? It gives us an incredibly different picture of the power of prayer than the one we so often engage. Prayer is not simply asking God for things. Prayer is spiritual warfare! Our prayers are spiritual contributions to the victory of the kingdom of God over evil. With prayer, we add oil to the Kingdom fire.

An Alternative View of Prayer

God is always doing everything he can to bring good out of every situation (Rom. 8:28). Terence Fretheim notes that to say God intervenes is a mistake, because it implies, "that God is not normally present but intervenes now and then with a goody or a baddy."(3) Subjectively, it may seem like God intervenes, but in such cases, our eyes are being opened to what God is always doing, or trying to do. As Greg Boyd says, "God sovereignly influences the whole process, working to bring about as much good and to prevent as much evil as possible."(4) William Hasker describes several ways God does this:
There are circumstances which God is able to arrange. There are the influences coming from other persons who are in tune with God's purposes in a situation. And above all, there is the 'internal operation of the Holy Spirit,' working within a person's mind and will in ways we only dimly understand. God respects us, but he does not 'leave us alone' to make our decision in isolation from his loving concern for us.(5)
Given this framework, our prayers create opportunity through which God can work; they create possibilities that were not possible before we prayed. As Boyd says,
By God's own design, [prayer] functions as a crucial constituent in the 'givens' of any particular situation that makes it possible for God more intensely to steer a situation to his desired end.(6)
Or, in Fretheim's words, "prayers make available to God some new ingredients . . . with which to work the divine will into a situation."(7) Put another way, Clark Pinnock says that prayer "expands God's effective presence in the world."(8) This is what we provide as vessels of the Holy Spirit.


When you pray, think about how you are praying. Consider the fact that your prayer actually has power to affect what happens, and let that acknowledgement inspire you to pray realistically, taking the free wills of others into account.

This may sound like it limits prayer, but I think if we begin to pray realistically, we will start to pray more fervently and effectively, because it will teach us to pray for things in such a way that we acknowledge our prayer can affect what happens, instead of merely praying ritualistically.

Acknowledging parameters on how we pray will keep us from taking prayer for granted or trivializing it, and will expand our understanding of the power of prayer.
For further reading:
Gregory A. Boyd, "Praying in the Whirlwind," in Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 209-241.
Terence Fretheim, "Divine Dependence on the Human: An Old Testament Perspective." Ex Auditu 13 (1997): 1-13.
Vincent Brümmer, "Praying for Things to Happen," in What Are We Doing When We Pray? rev. ed. (Burlington, Ashgate, 2008), 33-81.
(1) David Basinger, "Practical Implications," in The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 160-161.
(2) Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 311.
(3) This was said in a presentation Terence Fretheim gave called "Divine-Human Relationship," which can be found on Itunes U. 
(4) Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 237.
(5) William Hasker, Providence, Evil and the Openness of God (New York: Routledge, 2004), 224.
(6) Boyd, 231.
(7) Terence Fretheim, "Divine Dependence on the Human: An Old Testament Perspective." Ex Auditu 13 (1997), 2.
(8) Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 173.


  1. This is one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines for me.
    Constantly wrestling with this.
    I have gone months without praying, but not without reading, study,
    and meditation. My reasoning is that if God really loves me, which he does, then he will bless me and help me even if my prayer life is at times nonexistent.

    1. Thanks for being transparent!
      While this blog is about petitionary prayer, another blog could be written about prayer as an act of simple divine-human communication.
      I wonder what causes you not to pray, since even communicating to God your lack of fervor in praying is itself a prayer. Perhaps there are expectations in your mind of what prayer should be? Or perhaps you're simply referring to a lack petitionary prayer. I would then wonder what causes you not to engage in that--is it because of the ritualistic nature it has taken on in our culture? Or maybe a lack of understanding why it is even necessary? After all, if God already knows what he is going to do, then why pray for something to happen?

  2. In regards to you first point I have a question. What are your thoughts on God's hardening of Pharoah's heart? This isn't necessarily a challenge to your point, especially since I feel your point is more about God not controlling one person in favor of one other person. I'm just curious.

    1. Funny you should ask: I wrote a blog about that as well!