Updated: Apr 11, 2022
The particulars of private prayer vary but similarities around prayer requests (‘petitions’ in more formal language) are significant across the three Abrahamic faiths. The vast majority of requests are for spiritual needs––emotional help and guidance––though some ask for material things.
Seeking help to heal or relieve difficulties is common. A Jew and Muslim each remembered someone dying. Shazia prayed for her mother: “if it is her time, then have mercy and relieve her of that pain.” Praying to be a better person is also frequent––to be more patient or more compassionate––as are daily challenges. Susan has a lovely perspective: “I come to God with the knots in my life.” Even then, she seeks wisdom and insight. Unsurprisingly, requests for support are frequently for emotional strength. Before leading a group she found intimidating, Robin prayed: “Please let me be myself and let that be enough.”
Guidance is generally sought for difficult decisions like whether to take a daunting job or how to handle a delicate situation. Petitioning for more concrete things like jobs and relationships is in the minority. Saaliha, an American Muslim has a more general approach: “I figure all bad comes from Shetan (Satan) and all good comes from Allah (God), so I’m just asking Him to remove the bad and to bless us all with the good.” Amen.
Overall, people speak of two elements in petitioning. First, they need to ask for what they want, despite confidence that God knows what they need or what’s best for them. Second, they must be active in realizing the results.
Praying for help does not mean having it magically done for you, however much you believe in Divine power. ‘God’s not your genie in a bottle’, Christian theologians say. An American Jew commented: “God doesn’t give us things. God gives us the wherewithal to figure it out.” On a related note, a Jehovah’s Witness commented that Jehovah wants it to go well for us. Answers to prayers come, but she has free will and has to live with the consequences. Jehovah (God) is not against alcohol, but she cannot blame Him if she drinks too much and acts stupidly. These reflect an encouraging ecumenical value in taking responsibility for our actions and being active partners.
Results vary. Some see results, some are hopeful but unsure, for others prayer itself is beneficial, and yet others hedge their bets. For those confident God hears their prayers, the answer might be yes, no, or not yet, but they always get an answer. Ahmed, a Muslim, acknowledged that he receives eight of ten things prayed for, though not what is physically impossible. People get help and guidance, but not miracles.
How to make sense of the gap between request and result? In Dana’s view, getting the desired result happens when they are aligned with God’s will. It was intriguing to hear: “If it’s in line with His will, there’s no reason not to.” This reflected her confidence in the logic and sensibility of the Divine’s granting process. How does this square with the mysteriousness of God? Ascribing our pragmatic approach to the unknowable Divinity seems dubious. I mean no disrespect, but such statements raise questions. Elisabeth’s lighter touch rang true, however. She asks for guidance and just has to trust that it is the right thing or that she will learn from the mistake.
Another Christian with an active prayer life makes a distinction between solution and path. Her prayers for money did not bring cash, but the idea to rent her car – a path, not an obvious solution. Others seem to have an amazon.god delivery service – an admirable if unusual account! A strict Muslim had a similar view, saying: “If I don’t believe He can help me, what is the point of calling Him?” Quite. Dirk, a German Protestant, struggles more. During the war, his family and the neighbor’s family each prayed their fathers would return alive. Only Dirk’s did. He has difficulty reconciling this and his belief that God listens, a spiritual challenge that addresses God’s identity and role. Is God a general force in the world, a force active in our daily lives in the past but not now (the clock-maker theory) or a divinity still active in daily life today? Is seems senseless to pray for something specific and have any expectation of receiving it unless you see God as being active in daily life.
Even an affirmative answer may differ in kind. Dana commented: “Do we get the result we want? Well, that’s a different question.” As a British Catholic sees it: “We hope that God will answer our prayers as we want them, and we don’t always want what is the best for us. What seems to be a catastrophe can turn out to be a blessing.” The wisdom of the ‘good, bad, who knows’ approach is the openness to other meanings. We are meaning-making creatures and remaining open to interpretation is to our benefit, however challenging.
Whatever the outcome, taking time to clarify one’s thoughts and needs, or asking for guidance is helpful. Defining wishes increases calm and comfort, and setting intentions increases the likelihood of their realization. Lastly, praying with an open heart increases one’s intimacy with those we pray for and with God. What a blessing.
This post was originally posted on the State of Formation website on 14 Nov. 2018. It was written as part of their Blogging Fellowship. Names have been changed to protect their privacy, and all quotes are given with permission.