The Problem of Petitionary Prayer

Introduction

Something that is very clear in the scriptures is the instruction to pray

Kevin W. Pearson said:

The divine invitation to pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus Christ is the single most mentioned commandment in all recorded scripture 1

Joseph Smith was commanded to pray always:

D&C 10:5

Pray always, that you may come off conqueror; yea, that you may conquer Satan, and that you may escape the hands of the servants of Satan that do uphold his work

The Brother of Jared was chastised for not praying:

Ether 2:14

And it came to pass at the end of four years that the Lord came again unto the brother of Jared, and stood in a cloud and talked with him. And for the space of three hours did the Lord talk with the brother of Jared, and chastened him because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord.

There are different types of prayer

  • Prayer of gratitude – This is where we give thanks for what we have and what God has given us.
  • Prayer of glory or praise – This is where we honor God’s name.
  • Petitionary prayer – This is where we ask for things such as influencing the natural world, ourselves or others

Something that is also very clear in the scriptures is the instruction to ask or petition

D&C 46:1, 7

Hearken, O ye people of my church… ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, who giveth liberally

Alma 34:24-27

24 Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.

25 Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.

27 Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.

3 Nephi 18:21

Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed.

The Lord’s prayer in Matt 6:9-13:

9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Matthew 7:7

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:

James 1:5

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Matthew 21:21-22

21 Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.

22 And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

Jesus was a great example of asking God in prayer

Luke 23:34

34 Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.

Luke 22:31-32

31 And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:

32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.

Joseph Smith was also a great example of asking in faith. Even taken from his journal:

At home. Continued my studys O God give me learning even Language and indo [endue] me with qualifycations to magnify his name while I live I also deliv[ er] ed an address to the Church this Evening the Lord blessed my Soul, my Scribe also is unwell O my God heal him and for his kindness to me O my soul be thou greatful to him and he shall be blessed of God forever I believe him to be a faithful friend to me therefore my soul delighteth in him Amen. 2

Now asking in prayer is not described as a flippant exercise which we can do without giving any thought, there are a few prescriptions

D&C 9:7

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

One prescription is to ask in faith

James 1:6

6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

Another prescription is to keep the commandments

“And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” (1 Jn. 3:22; )

Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.” (1 Ne. 15:11)

A final prescription is that what we ask for has to be right. It is also known as praying in the name of Christ.

“Whatsoever ye ask the Father in my name it shall be given unto you, that is expedient for you.” (D&C 88:64)

3 Nephi 18:20

And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you.

Enos 1:15

“Whatsoever thing ye shall ask in faith, believing that ye shall receive in the name of Christ, ye shall receive it.”

We are told in the scriptures from God that he will answer prayers

D&C 64:7

I, the Lord, forgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness, who have not sinned unto death.

Revelation 3:20

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

D&C 9:8:

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

We also have examples in the scriptures of where prayers have been answered

Mosiah 27:14

And again, the angel said: Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.

Can a good God actually be persuaded by petitionary prayer? 

Ryan Matthew Parker and Bradley Rettler frame the question as follows:

1. For any action A, either God ought to do A or God ought not to do A.

2. For any action A, if God ought to do A, then God knows that God ought to do A and God will do A.

3. For any action A, if God ought not to do A, then God knows that God ought not to do A and God will not do A.

4. For any action A, if God knows that God ought to do A and God will do A, then your asking God to do A has no effect on whether God does A.

5. For any action A, if God knows that God ought not to do A and God will not do A, then your asking God to do A has no effect on whether God does A.

6. Therefore, for any action A, your asking God to do A has no effect on whether God does A. 3

The argument fails because it is not necessarily the case that for any action A, either God ought to do A or God ought not to do A.

Parker and Rettler successfully argue using a minimal approach that our prayers that God perform an action A could be effective if there were two worlds that are equally good: one in which God does A, and one in A which God doesn’t do A.

Would God really withhold things from us just because we didn’t pray for them?

Although the scriptures say that if we ask we can receive, but what about if we don’t ask? It’s certainly possible that if we ask we shall receive, but we would have received anyway.

James 1:6-7

But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

7 For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.

2 Nephi 32:4

Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.

James 4:2,3

Ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss….

Church leaders have echoed the scriptures David A Bednar said:

The object of our prayers should not be to present a wish list or a series of requests but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is eager to bestow, according to His will and timing. 4

The Bible Dictionary says

The object of prayer is…to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them. 5

So it seems that at least some things really are conditional upon us asking but this idea of not asking and therefore not getting seems problematic.

Michael J. Murray and Kurt Meyers said:

Consider the following situation. It is the first day of school, and the new third-grade students file into the classroom to be shown to their seats for the coming year. As they enter, the third-grade teacher notices one small boy who is particularly unkempt. He looks to be in desperate need of bathing, and his clothes are dirty, torn and tight-fitting. During recess, the teacher pulls aside the boy’s previous teacher and asks about his wretched condition. The other teacher informs her that he always looks his way, even though the boy’s family is quite wealthy. The reason he appears as he does, she continues, is that the family observes an odd practice according to which the children do not receive many important things – food, clothing, bather, even shelter – unless they specifically request them. Since the boy, like many third-graders, has little interest in bathing and clean clothes, he just never asks for them.

Surely the teacher would rightly feel a certain moral revulsion at such parents. What, after all, would lead them to adopt such an odd policy? Young children are so thoroughly unfit to make judgements about what is in their own self-interest that it seems to border on abuse to administer the family’s resources in such a way. One might think that the parents surely have an obligation to provide for the child’s well-being, especially in light of their financial resources. Is not depriving children of their basic needs only because they fail to ask for them criminally negligent, especially in light of their relative inability to assess rightly their own needs?

…while it appears that the parents in question are mistreating their children, the major Western theistic traditions seem to posit just such a relationship between God and his creatures.

If petitions are ever necessary conditions of God’s provision for at least some of creatures’ basic need, God seems open to the same charge raised against the parents in our above story. Yet if they are not necessary, petitionary prayer looks superfluous. 6

So at first glance it actually seems inconsistent with God’s goodness to make some things conditional upon asking however, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest” 7

When it comes to God giving good things, there only seems to be three options for God.

  1. Make everything conditional – don’t give us anything unless it is asked for
  2. Make everything unconditional – just give us everything without us ever having to ask for anything
  3. Make some things conditional

Option 1. Make everything conditional – This would mean God only giving good gifts if asked to

This has obvious problems. It would mean that like the schoolboy in the story, everything he needed or is good for him would have to be asked for before he got it. His parents attention, his breakfast everything.  This would be problematic for anyone who does not know how to ask, cannot ask, or does not realise they need to ask. God is not seeking to totally control the relationship he has with us. So this option can be dismissed.

Option 2. Make everything unconditional – This would mean God giving good gifts without any need for our input

Now this seems better than making everything conditional but has some issues. Mostly because The relationship we have with God is very unequal in that God is all powerful all loving and all knowing and we are very weak very unloving and very unknowing.

  • We could not be able to see God’s hand in anything and We couldn’t develop the interpersonal relationship God wants with us
  • We could become resentful
  • We could become spoiled

If the weather were always perfect and the earth perfectly placid, we may not come to see God’s hand in all things, for we would expect that such perfect peace is just the way things are. God is looking for a peer relationship. He seeks to give us all that he has.

Also we could become resentful. Again from Michael J. Murray and Kurt Meyers:

Imagine a teacher who notices that one of her students is procrastinating on a term paper and thereby storing up trouble for himself. If the teacher were to call the student at home and present him with the scheduling help he needs…his justified response might be “Who asked you?” or “Mind your own business”… However if the student were to ask for help then…the teacher could provide the student with the instruction he needs without the danger of overwhelming him. 8

We could also become spoiled. Blake Ostler said:

if God responded to our every importuning or if he already provided everything for us without our asking, there is a danger that we may be “spoiled” in the way that a child of royal family risks being spoiled. 9

Option 3. Make some things conditional – This would mean giving some good things without our need to ask, and giving other things only when asked.

Although at first it seemed inconsistent with God’s goodness, this is the only alternative that makes sense to me. The benefits:

  • By requiring petitionary prayers in some cases, God gives us real responsibility for the well-being of ourselves and others
  • By requiring petitionary prayers in some cases, God can bring us into a relationship in which we become co-creators of the future with him.
  • By requiring petitionary prayers in some cases, we give God the “excuse” to respond to us without being suffocated.

So it is better (in some cases) that God requires petitionary prayer rather than giving goods without asking. The key thing here is that not everything God gives us is conditional, but at least some things are. God need not make all goods hang on petition in order to achieve the greater good of allowing room to respond. It allows God to bless us liberally without always having to ask and who knows what we do not notice.  That day you drove to work, maybe he fixed your car when you didn’t even know it was broke.

Question 3: Would all our petitionary prayers be answered?

In our day we are not used to sticking at something when things don’t go exactly as we asked. How many times will we not go back to a restaurant because they didn’t give us the exact order we asked for. How often do we switch online grocery providers if they don’t give us exactly what we asked for. We sometimes may think of prayer as a way of ordering things and if we don’t get exactly what we ordered, we simply abandon the practice.

The obvious answer to the question is no, not all our petitionary prayers will be answered, but why not?

Above it was said that petitionary prayer requires:

  • Asking in faith (which I am not always doing)
  • Keeping the commandments (which I’m not always doing)
  • Asking in Christ’s name (which is God’s will or that which is expedient for me)

It is quite clear that not all prayers are asked in faith, involve me keeping the commandments but aside from that, what keeps most prayers from being answered is not praying in Christ’s name. Prayers are often petitions for obstacles to be moved out the way or things to go away and get easier. Often prayer asks for a lighter load rather than a stronger back.

The Bible Dictionary says:

“We pray in Christ’s name when our mind is the mind of Christ, and our wishes the wishes of Christ: when his words abide in us. We then ask for things it is possible for God to grant. Many prayers remain unanswered because they are not in Christ’s name at all; they in no way represent his mind, but spring out of the selfishness of man’s heart. 10

God’s will isn’t arbitrary. His will is what will make us happy. In our prayers we are trying to align our desires with what will actually make us happy. God doesn’t want us to get in line and do what he wants just because it’s what he wants. God wants us to do what he wants because doing what he wants is actually doing what we really want and that’s what will make us happy.

So what is God’s will?  Elder Christofferson said:

It is God’s will that we be free men and women enabled to rise to our full potential both temporally and spiritually, that we be free from the humiliating limitations of poverty and the bondage of sin, that we enjoy self-respect and independence, that we be prepared in all things to join Him in His celestial kingdom. 11

We would not expect all our petitionary prayers to be answered as Balke Ostler has explained:

it is important that prayer does not operate as a “magical” ritual that simply produces the desired results without developing an interpersonal relationship. 12

For this purpose, prayer is not a negotiation process, its an alignment process

Prayer is less about changing our circumstances and more about changing us. It is about seeking His will and asking for His help to do what we need to do. When we align our will with Heavenly Father’s will, answers and spiritual power will flow more freely. Following this pattern allows us to pray with faith. 13

Conclusion

Prayer is an essential part of the development of our relationship with God towards becoming one with him, as is petitionary prayer.

We should expect God to withhold some goods things until we ask and we should not expect all prayers to be answered. 

  1. Kevin W. Pearson. 2013. Improving your personal prayers. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/06/improving-your-personal-prayers?lang=eng. [Accessed 18 June 2018].[]
  2. Ostler, B., 2006. Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems With Theism And the Love of God. Greg Kofford Books Inc.[]
  3. Ryan Matthew Parker and Bradley Rettler. 2018. A Possible Worlds Solution to the Puzzle of Petitionary Prayer. [ONLINE] Available at: https://philarchive.org/archive/PARAPW. [Accessed 18 June 2018].[]
  4. David A. Bednar. 2008. Ask in Faith. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/ask-in-faith?lang=eng. [Accessed 18 June 2018].[]
  5. Lds.org. 2018. Prayer. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bd/prayer. [Accessed 18 June 2018].[]
  6. Michael J. Murray and Kurt Meyers. 1994. Ask and It Will Be Given to You. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20019697?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. [Accessed 18 June 2018].[]
  7. HC 6:248[]
  8. Michael J. Murray and Kurt Meyers. 1994. Ask and It Will Be Given to You. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20019697?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. [Accessed 18 June 2018][]
  9. Ostler, B., 2006. Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems With Theism And the Love of God. Greg Kofford Books Inc.  []
  10. Lds.org. 2018. Prayer. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bd/prayer. [Accessed 18 June 2018].[]
  11. D. Todd Christofferson. 2014. Free forever, to act for themselves. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/10/free-forever-to-act-for-themselves?lang=eng. [Accessed 18 June 2018].[]
  12. Ostler, B., 2006. Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems With Theism And the Love of God. Greg Kofford Books Inc.  []
  13. Kevin W. Pearson. 2013. Improving your personal prayers. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/06/improving-your-personal-prayers?lang=eng. [Accessed 18 June 2018].[]