OK, we’ve gone through praise, thanksgiving, and confession. Now we come to the last major aspect of prayer: petition (a theological term for asking for things).
For some reason, a lot of Christians seem to have some problem or another with this aspect. For what it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts (based on Scripture).Some Christians are actually uncomfortable asking our Father for anything for themselves. They’re really noble souls who like to praise him, thank him, and confess their sins, and they don’t mind praying for others’ needs. Just a reminder: The very word “pray” means “to ask.” But they’re uncomfortable asking for things for themselves. Now of course we want to keep the proper mindset when we’re asking him for something, especially if it’s for ourselves. That’s why I heartily recommend you spend some time praising him and thanking him before you get to any type of petition. In fact, I like to thank him for something related to my petition.
For example, let’s say I’m praying for my wife’s health. I might start out with “Father, I thank you that you are Yahweh Rapha, the God who heals us. I also thank you so much for bringing this wonderful woman into my life. She’s such a blessing and encouragement to me. Could you please bring her back to health, relieve her of this pain, bring her to the other side of this quickly?” You see, before you ask for a thing, take a moment to praise and/or thank him.
Having said that, apparently it needs to be relayed to some folks: There's nothing intrinsically wrong in asking the Lord for what you need or even want. There’s nothing intrinsically less noble about asking him for things, even for ourselves. And I’m not just talking about asking for spiritual needs, like “Lord, please make me a better follower of Jesus. Please remove the sin in my life and help me be more pleasing and obedient.” Yes, we definitely need that (probably more than the physical stuff). I’m also referring to physical needs and even wants. If you need to, read over the Matthew passage again slowly. He invites us to ask for things. He encourages us to ask for things. He wants us to ask for things.
Ask, seek, knock. You will receive. You will find. The door will be opened to you.
But because we’re naturally selfish and sinful and unwise, there are three caveats we need to go over.
First off, if you read the passage again, you might notice that the latter part is talking about asking him for things we need, not necessarily things we want. The son in his example is asking for bread and fish, in other words, the necessities of life. There’s nothing in this passage about asking him for steak and caviar.
But is it wrong to ask? Well, it’s not intrinsically sinful. There’s nothing in Scripture that forbids asking him for even the finer things in life. But I think to ask him for luxuries betrays a sort of shallowness, a poor perspective on life.
Think about it for a moment. This isn’t rocket surgery, even if you’re not a parent. What type of parent gives his child everything the child asks for? A pretty poor one. Our Father is perfect, so he’s not going to give us anything which'll harm us, which would include hindering our relationship with Christ. He'll always give us what we need. But just like with children, our definition of “need” and his definition of “need” aren’t necessarily the same.
When we pray, we’re not uttering a magical formula that manipulates impersonal forces to do what we desire. That is the definition of magic. We're asking a Person for something, Someone who knows perfectly what we need, and loves us enough to say “no” when that’s the right answer.
And then there’s James’s discourse on this, which brings us to the second caveat. He tells us that there are two possible reasons why we don’t receive from God. First, it might be because you don’t ask. But second, and more germane to what I’m getting at, he says that even if we do ask, “[We] do not receive, because [we] ask with wrong motives, that [we] may spend what [we] get on [our] pleasures.” Why are you asking for X? Is it just so you can spend what you get on your pleasure? If so, James says that’s a great reason why our loving Father doesn’t give you what you’re asking for.
That brings us to the third reason why he doesn’t give us what we ask for. The apostle Paul asked the Lord to take away his “thorn” (whatever that was). Satan sent it, but apparently the Lord in his mysterious plan ordained it behind the scenes. Paul—remember, this is the apostle Paul here—asked the Lord three times to take it away. And the Lord said no. No specific reason given, other than “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, I’m going to use this to grow you by having you rely on my strength while you’re going through this.
But let’s not all these asterisks dilute the wonderful truth here. Yes, he does answer prayer. And he loves to say “yes.” I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:
Thou are coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.
Father, I don’t want to be presumptuous, and I don’t want to be timid. Guide me here, please, by your Spirit.