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Petitionary Prayers, a Sovereign God, and Time

Updated on March 22, 2018
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Introduction

The question of whether a Christian should pray or not is immediately answered directly by scripture. Multiple places throughout the Bible, the Biblical authors convey commands or examples of the necessity of prayer in a Christian’s life. However, it is when one begins to concern himself with reconciling an omniscient God with His need for mortal communication that questions begin to arise. Questions such as “If God knows what I will say or what I need, why should I vocalize that?” or “If God’s actions are already known, what changes could my prayer make?” become an exercise in understanding the nature of God, the nature of nature, and our finite understanding of an infinite God. This paper will address some of these concerns and provide a possible answer to this question.

Possible Solutions

Given this problem, there is a multitude of possible answers to the question. Many different philosophers and religions approach and address the question in a myriad of viewpoints, but this paper will address the seemingly most common.

Solution 1 – For Man’s Sake

Dr. Eleonore Stump proposes the first solution I will address. In her paper “Petitionary Prayer”, she begins by laying out an argument against petitionary prayer, beginning with “(1) a perfectly good being never makes the world worse than it would otherwise be if he can avoid doing so”. In the following points from 2 and 11, she builds the argument with each following point dependent on the previous one until she concludes that “(12) Petitionary prayer effects no change” and “(13) Petitionary prayer is pointless”.[1] She acknowledges that if all things are predetermined, then a justification of petitionary prayer is problematic.[2] Her paper then goes on to refute each of these points and explore why her proposition becomes inevitably false. After finally addressing each, Dr. Stump concludes that her solution is that God must work through petitionary prayer, for man’s sake, rather than doing everything on his own initiative.[3]

Solution 2 – Individual and Corporate Petitionary Prayer

Murry and Meyers postulate the second solution in their paper “Ask and It Will Be Given to You”. In their paper, they contrast individual and corporate petitionary prayer and the differences with relation to them being necessary conditions to affirmative responses or provisions from God.[4] With the individual, they investigate the acquisition of “goods” from prayer, and also whether harm would come to an individual by inaction by God without said invitation by the petitioner. With regard to corporate petitionary prayer, they explore the difficulty of a third person interjecting themselves into the man-God dynamic, and how action or inaction can become problematic with regard to the free-will of the individual. They conclude that petitionary prayer is a way for the believer to avoid idolatry, to also align with His will, and that corporate petitionary prayer cultivates harmony and dependence among a body of believers.[5]

Solution 3 – Freedom and Relational Models

The final solution I will address is postulated by David Basinger and states that neither model is acceptable to answer the question. In his paper “Why Petition an Omnipotent God?”, he boils the argument down to two options; either one must prescribe to the “freedom” model or the “relational” model. Basinger explains that the freedom model states that even if God’s desire is to act, He willingly withholds action until requested or invited.[6] The evidence of, and the affirmative or negative response to petitionary prayers, have a direct bearing on a deepening relationship with God. In addition, if petitions are not produced, non-action by God is a reminder of such and thus reinforcing the necessity of prayer and of a close relationship with God, thereby reinforcing the ultimate free-will of the petitioner.[7] Basinger defines the other choice as the relational model, where God’s choosing to answer a petitionary prayer in the affirmative or negative, is perfectly consistent with His sovereignty. Specifically, free-will has no bearing what-so-ever on the limits of God’s control. God simply chooses to act or not to act until the invitation to do so by the petitioner.[8] Finally, Basinger concludes that the solution to the problem is that, while petitionary prayer is certainly not a meaningless exercise, taking either view, both the freedom and relational model break down at some point under additional scrutiny and lack the forceful determination of the efficacy of prayer to the theist.[9]

My Position

Assertion

Upon careful consideration, I have determined the best possible response to this question is that petitionary prayer continually lines the believer up with the will of God. Finding myself in agreement with Murray and Meyers, I believe the primary reason for a believer to pray is that it lines the believer up with God’s will. The more time spent in prayer, the closer to God’s will the believer will be.[10] Time equals closeness. When I was dating my wife, I got to know her by spending time with her, not by carrying around her picture. The more time we spent communicating, either by phone, e-mail or in person, the more we got to know each other and the closer we became. The same holds true for the Holy Spirit and understanding God’s will. As the believer spends more and more time in prayer, she becomes more attune with the will of the Father, and the more her petitionary prayers will align with His perfect will.[11]

This does not change the fact that God desires the believer to tell Him the desires of their heart, (Psalm 37:4) but it does align the believer’s heart more closely to the Holy Spirit, with regard to their desires.[12] In multiple places in Scripture, Biblical authors remind us to take our cares to God, because it does affect change. For example, Paul and Timothy wrote to the church at Philippi and reminded them to use prayer to make their requests known to God, (Philippians 4:6) and John wrote to believers that when we ask according to His will, that He hears us. (1 John 5:14) Paul also wrote to the church at Ephesus that believers should pray in the spirit with all kinds of requests and prayers. (Ephesians 6:18) It is clear from these verses that the Biblical authors were insisting that a proper prayer would frame the prayer as such to line up to the will of the Holy Spirit. It is important to remember that while we are to tell God the desires of our heart, the point of prayer is to create and deepen an intimate relationship with God.[13]

The second response to this is a bit more abstract, but I feel this is detrimental to the response and also in framing the believer’s opinion of the question and its answer. Explained by Dr. Eleanor Stump in both her interview by Robert Lawrence Kuhn and also in lectures delivered at The University of Navarra, the assumption that undergirds this topic is that the other arguments fail to incorporate the understanding of time in their claims. Every argument seems to be framed on the basis of a linear timeline. The arguments then force that timeline not only on the petitioner, but also force that same concept of time onto God and on to Heaven where he dwells, and it is this that I feel changes the argument.

It is important to understand that time in the universe is a created thing, and God is not bound by the created universe. According to the Cosmological Argument and scripture,[14] God and Heaven exist outside of space-time in which life as we know it exists. The following proposition could then be framed as;

If God is the beginning and the end,[15]

then He is outside of time and space.

He is the beginning and the end,

therefore God is not bound by the linear time model we understand.

Dr. Stump explains this view in her lecture at The University of Navarra. [16] She explains that petitionary prayer, even praying for past events, is valid. Not to change the outcome of past events from the human vantage point, but all prayers have an effect nonetheless in petitioning God in his decisions. She exemplifies this understanding by comparing it with theoretical physics and its findings concerning the creation of the universe and the explanation of the Big Bang.[17] Given the current understanding of “string theory”, time can be calculated during and prior to the Big Bang, assuming the theory of multiverses (infinite possible universes) is possible. William Craig’s explanation of the Chaotic Inflationary Model shows this to be a possibility.[18] The point is that at the creation of the universe, theoretical physicists state that the laws governing the universe were just being formed. Moreover, while science can postulate or theorize those details, specific details become very hard to understand. It is the same with the Timeless Eternity View as explained by Scott Davidson in “Reason for the Hope Within”[19] and by Dr. Stump in her interview by Kuhn.

We then can use the same methodology, albeit with Philosophy instead of Theoretical Physics to understand this concept of God being outside of created time. Boethius wrote eternity is “simultaneously the whole and perfect possession of interminable life”.[20] His explanation shows that God exists at all times and has no beginning and no end. Simply put, while we see time in a linear format, God exists in all time at the same time. Therefore when we pray, He has access to those prayers at any point during the existence of the Universe, and even outside of time itself as well. To take this one step further, God should then have access to our petitionary prayer at the point He created time and therefore can consider our petitionary prayers when he laid the foundations of the universe and providentially ordained the events of time itself. I find this argument to be the most tenable given the current understanding of time and the Sovereignty of God. This view reconciles both the omnipotence of God as well as His desire for believers to engage in petitionary prayer.

Defense

In holding to the assertion above, other arguments become less tenable, and the defense of such takes the arguments beyond what a timeline-based premise can argue. Asserting that God is bound by time is to claim that he is bound by his creation, which is not the case. Whether the argument is that (1) God must answer prayer’s for man’s sake, (2) private and corporate prayers are efficacious, or (3) accepting either the freedom or relational model; none of those three seem to take into account that petitionary prayer to, as Dr. Stump explains it, a being who wholly and perfectly possesses interminable life, is able to show that petitionary prayers could be considered by God when making decisions at the beginning of time. God controls time,[21] is inside of all time at the same time, and at the same time outside of time.

Also, this view, a sort of modified Timeless Eternity View, harmonizes different theories and makes sense of differing theories. James wrote that the believer does not receive because they do not ask,[22] and that seems to be opposite the understanding that what will be given or ordained has already been determined by a sovereign God who is the beginning and the end. Seeing that petitionary prayer can influence God’s decision at the beginning of time makes both of these viewpoints congruent.

Conclusion

In conclusion, prayer is a core discipline of the believer, and all too often it can be discounted as ineffective because answers are too far off, or seem to not be effective. Prayers of petition and thanksgiving and praise are commanded in scripture, and thus God must have a rational reason for including them in a believer's life. Even Jesus gave us an example of a petitionary prayer and instructed his disciples, and by extension us, to pray using His model.[23] Petitionary prayer should be one of the core activities of a believer. With the believer engaged in prayer, they both line up with God’s will and their prayers become influential in God’s decision for the course of events in His creation.


[1] Eleonore Stump, “Petitionary Prayer,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16, no. 2 (April, 1979): 84-85, www.jstor.org/stable/20009745.

[2] Stump, “Petitionary Prayer,”

[3] Stump, “Petitionary Prayer,

[4] Michael J. Murray and Kurt Meyers, “Ask and It Will Be Given to You,” Cambridge University Press 30, no. 3 (September, 1994): 315.

[5] Murray and Meyers, “Ask and It Will Be…”. 330.

[6] David Basinger, “Why Petition an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Good God?,” Cambridge University Press 19, no. 1 (March, 1983): 32.

[7] Ibid., 36.

[8] Ibid., 33.

[9] Ibid., 41.

[10] Dr. Hank Williams, D2 - Disciples Making Disciples, 3rd ed. (Boiling Springs, SC: BSFBC, 2017), 21-25.

[11] Matt Slick, “Why should we pray?,” Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, April 11, 2017, accessed April 13, 2017, https://carm.org/why-should-we-pray.

[12] Matt Slick, “Can we change God's mind with prayer?,” Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, January 25, 2012, accessed April 13, 2017, https://carm.org/prayer-change-gods-mind.

[13] Ann Manley Work, “Honest Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,” CRU, November 9, 2016, accessed April 13, 2017, https://www.cru.org/train-and-grow/spiritual-growth/prayer/honest-answers-to-tough-questions-about-prayer.html.

[14] Genesis 1:1, Revelation 4:8

[15] Revelation 1:8

[16] Eleonore Stump, “The Openness of God: Eternity and Free Will” (Video of lecture, The University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, October 24, 2015), accessed April 15, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JVzy-eXqKU.

[17] Eleonore Stump, “Is God Temporal or Timeless?” (Video of lecture, Closer to Truth, Saint Louis, MO, September 1, 2015), accessed April 15, 2017, https://www.closertotruth.com/series/god-temporal-or-timeless#video-3071.

[18] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, ©2008), 132-34.

[19] Michael J. Murray, ed., Reason for the Hope Within (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, ©1999), 230-31.

[20] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q. 10, Art. 1.

[21] Joshua 10:13

[22] James 4:2

[23] Matthew 6:9-13

Comments

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    • ericjperry profile image

      ericjperry 

      7 months ago from Cullman, AL

      I marvel at the audacity of a created being making claims of what the Creator would or should be like, as if somehow they know how God is supposed to act. Dr. Stump comes from a place of arrogance, so it is very hard for me to line up with anything she claims. Predetermined doe not mean predestined. Simply because God is omniscient, does not make us without choice; it simply means He already knows how this plays out and we do not. I say this in response to some of the points you posted to ultimately agree with you and state my belief that prayer/prayer time is necessary because ultimately it is a form of worship. Worship is ultimate. If I get on my knees and bow my head before God then I am showing that I surrender to Him, I am a servant to Him, and that I need Him and I am coming to Him because He can fulfill my needs. I worship Him.Also an important aspect, is that i believe in Him. If I need $20 and I come to you for the money it is because I believe you can satisfy my need. If I believe I need saving and I go to God then it is because I believe He can save me. The actual words of a prayer mean less than the motive in the heart that prompted the prayer. Gen 22:12, "He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you [a]fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (NASB). When we pray to God we are representing ourselves in the position of submission and ultimate worship to God, and then He knows we fear the Lord by our actions, just as He knew with Abraham through his actions. It is essentially our phone call to God. We tell our parents, kids, and spouses that we love them everyday even though they already know. We pray to God about our problems, thankfulness and everything else even though He already knows.

      Great article. I will be reading more of your work. Prayer should be a massive part of our life. It is for me, and will continue to be. As a matter of fact, I pray that God blesses you, and every person that reads this article, and that they may know and understand the true loving grace of our God. Amen.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Of course I believed in your conclusion before reading it. I really like true theological discussion. I find it shows a great confidence in our Lord. I need to petition more often. Thanks for the fine reminder.

      Well written and clearly well thought out.

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