The Power of Petitionary Prayer

Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, theologian and mystic, wrote, "If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice." This is a lovely sentiment, but I think petitionary prayer has its place, as well. When we approach God with sincere and appropriate requests, we express four things: first, confidence in the depth of our relationship with God; second, acceptance of our responsibility to distinguish between what is God’s to do and what is ours to do; third, a willingness to hear prayer’s message to us; and fourth, a sincere desire to see the world through God’s eyes.

The child who asks God to deliver a new video game, or the adult who petitions God to insure that a business deal is clinched, approach God as a cosmic vending machine. But when we ask for patience, fortitude, a keener sense of justice, greater compassion, healing, and courage, we express confidence in God to be our Rock and Support through the vicissitudes of life, as Psalm 121 describes.

Further, when we seek appropriate blessings we declare that we accept responsibility for what it is our duty to control: our behavior, our words, our attitudes, our efforts, our choice of friends and lovers, our choice of business associates, our endeavors. Appropriate petitionary prayer demonstrates that we understand the distinction between what God provides and our responsibilities. Reinhold Niebuhr expressed this beautifully: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Prayer lifts us beyond ourselves. When I prayer for healing, I remember all those in need of healing and my obligation to visit the sick. When I pray for peace, I recall that I am responsible for bringing peace to my corner of the universe. When I pray for patience, strength, and courage, I remind myself that these are attributes I must cultivate in myself, and not expect them to come drifting down from heaven. Prayer is often a “message to self.”

Finally, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The focus of prayer is not the self... It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts... Thus, in beseeching Him for bread, there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy. This instant is prayer. We start with a personal concern and live to feel the utmost.” Thus he taught, “To pray is to dream in league with God, to envision God’s holy visions.” To petition God is to acknowledge what God requires of us: To be God’s partners in building the world God envisions. Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, inspired by Rabbi Heschel, wrote: “Prayer invites God's presence to suffuse our spirits; God's will to prevail in our lives. Prayer might not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will. Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.”

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.