IN MANY WAYS there are no problems that are more difficult to think through and therefore live through for the late 20th-century Christian of liberal sensibilities than those raised by the idea of petitionary prayer. In depicting the way we are caught both by mechanistic images of a scientific, closed universe and by our deistic sense that God not only will not but cannot break God's own natural laws, Ronald Goetz describes our dilemma very well. He is equally helpful when he points to our concern that to pray for ourselves or for those close to us may somehow be unethical because it seems to be asking for favored treatment by God. Finally, he states boldly what he believes may be our most painful fear of all, that if we take petitionary prayer seriously, we will find ourselves praying to a God who really is an Unjust Judge: arbitrary and heartless.
Goetz goes on to insist, however, that, as Christians, we cannot reject petitionary prayer outright. Jesus himself prayed that way, after all, and he taught his disciples to pray that way as well. Furthermore, as Goetz points out, if we are to be able to trust that we ourselves have real freedom, and thus ultimately a hope for our own redemption then we also have to be able to believe that God is not so bound by the natural laws of the universe that God cannot intervene on our behalf.
Goetz believes that the solution to our problems lies, first, in our acceptance of the utter sovereignty of God whose benevolent rule is always punctuated by great periods of baffling, painful silence, which even Jesus experienced on the cross, and, second, in our acknowledgment that, while most of our prayers may not appear to be answered, the ones that are answered come to us as signs and promises of our ultimate redemption. Goetz concludes that, though we do not understand it, as Christians we must affirm that the Lord God is Lord indeed, and God rules the world "in consultation with those who pray." Thus, we should not only feel free to pray prayers of petition for ourselves and the world; we are actually obligated so to pray.
I find a great deal in Goetz's essay that illuminates my understanding of petitionary prayer, particularly his analysis of what in our modern setting keeps us from trusting it; his argument that our human freedom depends upon God's own freedom; his point about how odd it is that we are able to believe that God changes minds but not bodies, while we insist on the unity of body and soul; and, finally, his insistence that Jesus himself petitioned God and taught us to pray that way too.
What I don't find helpful, however true it might be to a large portion of Christian tradition, is Goetz's image of God as an all powerful but mostly aloof and subtle sovereign who nevertheless shares the rule of the world with human beings. How can I possibly pray to such a distant, impersonal God out of anything other than duty? Goetz's God is not a God in whom I can trust. I cannot love this God in any but the most abstract manner. Nor, on the other hand, can I make sense of an all-powerful, distant God who consults me on the proper running of the universe.
A more helpful image for my own understanding of petitionary prayer is one that is almost the opposite of Goetz's: that of friendship with God. The notion of friendship with God is fundamental in the early literature on the Christian life. Irenaeus in the second century speaks of human beings as having originally been created to be companions of God. Friendship with God is well illustrated in the Sayings of the Fathers of the Egyptian desert, and both the fourth-century Gregory of Nyssa (following his brother Basil) and the fifth-century Theodoret of Cyrrhus describe friendship with God as the goal of growth in the Christian life.
That we are called to friendship with God is not only a patristic idea; it is also biblical. In 2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8 and James 2:23 …