Friday, August 17, 2012

Pray with heart and mind

Paul Helm recently did a helpful post on petitionary prayer:

I’d like to augment something he said. Because God is omniscient, it’s true that when we pray for someone or something, we don’t have to inform God or convince God. However, I think there’s some value in prayers that explain our request, not merely state our request.

Here I’d draw a distinction between short-term and long-term prayers. In Christian life there are various topical concerns that crop up. These will resolve themselves one way or another in a short time.

In contrast, some petitions are a long-term investment. Praying for the salvation for a friend or relative. This may go on for years. Indeed, it may last a lifetime.

I think in long-term petitions there’s more value in reasoning with God. The process of explaining to God why we want something isn’t for God’s benefit, but our own. It’s an occasion to take stock of our priorities. Reflect on what makes this petition important. What is there to gain? What is there to lose? 

How much does this mean to us? Why does it mean so much to us? Does it mean too much to us? Or should it mean even more to us?

It’s an exercise in spiritual self-examination. Why do we care? What makes life worthwhile–for our loved ones and ourselves? What does life distill down to? What can we take with us? What should we take with us?

There are some things we pray for out of duty, but other things we pray for out of affection. Both petitions can be legitimate.

In addition, our prayers may evolve over the course of a lifetime. God puts us in circumstances that change us. Change our perspective. Things we thought were good at the time may see less good in retrospect. Things we thought were bad at the time may seem better in retrospect.

As life wears on we ought to become more aware of how vulnerable we are. How dependent we are on God. How utterly lost we’d be, even in this life, without God’s word, grace, and providence.

Among other things, prayer is a way we remind ourselves of what ultimately matters. Life is a winnowing process. Things we leave behind which we’re grateful to put behind us, as well as things we miss. We can plow the aging process into our prayer life. S

o there’s a value in explaining our petitions to God, not because he doesn’t already know what we need better than we do, and not because we can cajole God through our powers of persuasion, but because it’s a way of thinking aloud and thinking through, not merely what we want, but why we want it, or whether we should.


  1. Steve,

    I was wondering how these thoughts might play out with the distinction between corporate and private prayer. I haven't studied much on whether there is or a if sharp distinction should even be made between the two.

    I ask because recently I have been struggling over long prayers in church that seem to me to be speaking primarily to the listeners rather than to God. (i.e. "Dear Lord, who saved us from our sins, please remember us, who are were dead in our sins, please heal *this person* because you are the great physician" etc) I feel like corporate prayers are often bleeding the line into sermons.

    But since prayer isn't trying to convince God of anything perhaps that is okay and I'm making too much of it.

    I guess I was just wondering if you had any thoughts or recommendations for reading that might help clear this up for me.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

    In Christ,

  2. That's a good question that merits a separate post. However, readers tend to tune out of the blog on Friday and begin tuning back in Sunday evening, so I probably won't post a response until Sunday evening or so.

  3. Thanks, I look forward to reading it.