Many who approve of prayers of adoration begin to squirm when we talk about petitionary prayers or prayers that intercede for others. For some, rejecting petitionary prayer is a way of exalting the sovereignty of God. If God is in control of all things through his meticulous providence, why pray for Him to do something specific? After all, we can’t suggest something God hasn’t considered. And if God is in control of all things, can’t we just let His plan unfold? Yes, it may look like some possible outcomes are evil or at least unwanted, but who are we to question the will of God by asking God for something else? Our prayers, some would say, should just be prayers of praise and thanksgiving for God governing all things according to his sovereign will.
Others object to intercessory prayer to exalt the love of God. God is love, so will our prayers for someone else move God to love them more? Will God do some loving thing for someone just because we prayed? Will God withhold a loving act of help or healing just because we didn’t pray? It is God’s essence to love, so how can our prayers make Him love or do more? If we really trust in God’s love, why pray?
Sometimes people express the idea this way: “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us”. Prayer certainly does change us and the character of God is certainly unchanging, but the idea that God does not act in response to our prayers is simply unbiblical. Even the idea that prayer changes us can be problematic if we think God is sovereignly at work in shaping our character. Do we dare suggest that God needs us to pray so that His will is done within our spiritual growth? Can’t God simply do in us what He wills?
Isn’t it more spiritual to simply surrender to the sovereignty of God and accept all things as from his hand? Well, no. This is the opposite of what Jesus taught about prayer. Again and again, he tells his disciples to ask. In the parable of the widow and judge (Luke 18), Jesus emphasizes being persistent in petitionary prayer. And of course, Paul prayed for God to do things for each of the churches addressed in his epistles. Paul also asked the churches to pray for him. Asking seems to matter.
However, a responsive God leaves us with the uncomfortable reality that some things will not happen unless we or others pray. This can be, in some ways, terrifying and other ways exhilarating. God, it seems, wants to partner with us in the work of the kingdom. God seeks our help because in our prayers we become more like Jesus. Petitionary prayer keeps us in relationship with a loving God who seeks to work with and through His people. Like a loving Father teaching a child how to do chores, God patiently uses our prayers and our obedience to accomplish HIs purposes. Like the good father, God does not need our help. This partnership with us in the labors of the kingdom is one of God’s most important goals—a goal He can achieve only if He chooses not to do everything apart from our prayers. We co-labor now with God so that we are trustworthy and equipped to reign with Him in the age to come.
Many of Paul’s exhortations to pray and stay alert are in response to us having a very real enemy who seeks to destroy us. Intercessory prayer can be entered before God as evidence and as an argument for mercy. Satan is the “accuser of the brethren,” and demands God judge sin. In response to intercession God will sometimes show mercy. After Moses interceded for Israel, we are told, “So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people” (Exodus 32:14). Many have a hard time with this verse and inject a lot of explanation to avoid the obvious meaning. Was God just “kidding” when said he would destroy them? Was God just testing Moses to see if Moses would intercede? Or maybe God is relational and actually responded to the intercession of Moses—like the verses say.
Yes, a life not burdened with petitionary and intercessory prayer would be easier—and can be passed off as more spiritual. Prayer wears me out. I get disappointed and frustrated when my prayers aren’t answered when and how I desire. And many of the prayers involve people who, it appears, have the free-will to resist God and break my heart. So I pray for people, not certain how much my prayer helps.
I wish in one lovely prayer I could give all things into God’s hands and stop asking Him to save people, heal people, protect people, and help people. But God’s Word and His Spirit won’t let me. They have conspired to make me live like Jesus who once said to Peter, “I have prayed for you” (Luke 22:32).