In this reflection, I want to turn to the subject that comes to mind when most people think of prayer: petition and intercession. Petitions are the things that we pray for ourselves, and intercessions are what we pray for others and the larger world. In both cases, we are bringing the requests of our heart to God.
Why Ask if God Already Knows?
Some people wonder if we should even be doing this. Isn’t God pretty busy doing big God things such as running the universe? Does God even have time for our little prayers? Others think that, since God already knows everything, prayer must be redundant. If God knows what I am going to pray billions of years before I say the prayer, what’s the point? Still others look at a long laundry list of unanswered prayers and come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work anyway.
All of these are important considerations, but they miss the central point of coming to God with the concerns of our heart. If you look at the Lord’s Prayer, you will notice that it begins and ends with praise, but in the middle is a small laundry list of petitions: “Give us this day our daily bread… forgive us our sins… save us from the time of trial… deliver us from evil.” Jesus’ intention was to show us that we should be praying these on a regular basis.
Of course, it is not limited to these four. Jesus was giving us a template for prayer, and teaching his disciples regularly to come to God in prayer: “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” So why should we bring these things to God even if God already knows what we need?
The Central Point
The central point is that God wants to be in relationship with us. This is what we have to grasp to understand Christianity. Jesus referred to God as Father because the ‘being’ at the heart of the universe is not an impersonal force or principle, but a God who cares and loves. It doesn’t matter how much smaller we are than God; God has the ability to be fully present to every atom in the universe. He wants us to come to him, to bring our hearts, our needs, our fears and joys to him. It doesn’t matter that God already knows.
I think of this relationship as being sort of like the one I have with my own children. They will start to tell me a story, and I recognize it immediately and know everything that is going to happen in the story. But there is something more important than the information in the story. I am delighted to have my children telling me stories and coming to me. They trust me and know that I love them. I am not just listening to a story; I am listening to THEM telling me a story. This is how God is to us.
Tips for Petition and Intercession
How do we practice this kind of prayer? There are no rules. You just talk to God and tell God your petitions and intercessions. Here are some tips that I have found helpful:
- Make an actual prayer list. I keep my prayer lists organized on my phone. There are some prayers I pray everyday, and others I pray once a week. My lists help me to organize them. I personally have four lists that I work through: a personal one for my own prayers, a list for my family, a list for people I am praying for, and a list for the world.
- When you pray, don’t rush. If you find you are reading through your petition and intercession lists as a laundry list, slow down. Usually I try to spend a moment on each name, imaging the person and holding before God their needs.
- When you tell someone you are going to pray for them, make sure you put it on your prayer list for at least a short time.
- Be a prayer warrior. What this means is that you should consider making this a part of your identity. See your calling as pray-er for the world, standing before God and holding the pain of those around you. People will know they can come to you for prayer and know that you will take their needs seriously.
- Some people find it helpful to imagine putting these prayers somewhere. You might imagine placing your concerns at the foot of the cross.
- Keep praying. Sometimes you can pray for years with no answer. In prayer we are stepping out in faith. There is a great virtue in perseverance. We underestimate its importance. Keep coming back to God. He does hear us and loves us.
I don’t want to minimize the anguish and stress that can come from the fact of unanswered petitions and intercessions. I also don’t want to give a simplistic answer to why people pray and sometimes nothing happens. In our next reflection, we will look at the question of unanswered prayers, but for today, I want to emphasize that prayer is the heart of our relationship with our loving Father.