Can you petition the Lord with prayer?

"When I was back there in seminary school, there was a person there who put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer.

Petition the Lord with prayer.

Petition the Lord with prayer.


So said Jim Morrison once upon a time.

When first I heard those lyrics, I thought them to be a simple nihilistic rejection of religion. I’m a lifelong atheist myself, and it’s never occurred to me to petition the Lord, so it seemed to fit nicely into my worldview.

As I’ve aged, though, and learned more about Christianity and the different interpretations of it, I’ve discovered that it seems like a factual commentary on Calvinist theology.

God is all-knowing. That means He knows everything that has occurred, is occurring now, and will occur in the future. He is also all-powerful. That means He is capable of causing anything that He desires to happen, to happen.

It would seem to follow, therefore, that everything that happens, happens because God desires it to happen. And therefore, it is impossible to petition the Lord with prayer, because not only is it the case that God decided on what is going to happen long before you prayed for it one way or the other, it also happens that the only reason you’re praying for it in the first place is because God decided that you would.

I’m not posting this to challenge anyone’s faith. I’m just interested in hearing the perspective of believers; does the act of prayer actually cause God to do something He wouldn’t have done in the first place? Are you just playing your part in the cosmic play by doing what God intended you to do? Is the act of prayer more for your own benefit than his? Is there some theological loophole in God’s omnipotence and omniscience that I am not aware of?

I just want to learn.

Coming from the trenches of Catholic theology, namely my childhood BFF’s mother: “when my daughter has an exam, I don’t pray to God to send her knowledge she didn’t learn; I pray to Him to send no toothaches to her during the exam or to the teachers while they grade.”

One of the big divides between Calvinism and Catholicism is that Calvinism tends to predestination: there are no choices. There is no free will. Everything is preordained. There is no merit, but also no real fault, because whatever you do, good or bad, is God’s Will. God is the only real actor, we’re puppets in His hands.

Catholicism rejects this completely: there is free will, there is choice. And in prayer, we’re not supposed to be asking for stuff that’s outside the realm of probability: asking for the teacher to not have a toothache is asking for something quite probable; asking for someone to know a thing they never studied is not. Asking to be cured of your cancer: probable (more probable or less probable depending, but it’s still not something completely impossible). Asking for your arm to grow back: nope. We kind of believe in the Probabilistic God, although I know many people who’d scream if they heard me say that (mainly people who don’t know what “probability” means).
And then there is prayer, as you say, as a psychological mechanism. Praying can help you focus (it’s a form of meditation), it can help you regain control, orient yourself; when done in the company of an advisor, it can improve the results of the advice (by improving the mindset, it improves the communication).

Scientific pantheist answer:
There is no Lord, so petitioning him/her/it/WE is useless.

What isn’t useless, is a kind of meditative state in which you listen to yourself, and try to do that in a kind, constructive way. To hear yourself and to ask yourself: “Hey, that is important to me. Why? Am I doing what I can to reach that goal, or an underlying goal? Is there any help I could get?”

Psychologist answer: I guess. If you believe in the kind of god that can be petitioned, then it makes sense to boost your confidence by doing so.

All you will learn is that there is a difference of opinion, depending on which religious sect a person follows.

Ambrose Bierce defined prayer thus:

I think Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination is mostly related to salvation.

Ephesians 2:8-9

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”

In fact you cannot even reject salvation. God chose the saved and they cannot reject their salvation even if they wanted to.

I think that in all other respects I think that the regular rules of prayer apply.

The best example of God seeming to change his mind comes from Genesis 18 when Abraham petitions (you could even say bargains with) God to not destroy Sodom.

Of course, as Hebrew and Christian theology have developed and their understanding of how and what God must be has become more defined, God has been definitively understood as necessarily immutable. Therefore we can know that God does not in actuality change his mind, because his will and purpose from beginning to end must always be perfect.

If you want to know the purpose of Christian prayer, it’s best to go right to the source. The founder of Christianity gave his disciples instructions on how to pray in Matthew 6. Judging by this passage, the primary purposes of prayer are

To give due reverence to God who has a fatherly relationship with us:
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”

To submit oneself to God’s will:
“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”

To acknowledge that it is God who provides all of our needs and to petition him for our needs that align with his will:
“Give us this day our daily bread”

To humbly acknowledge our failures:
“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”

To petition God for the gift of perseverence, which aligns with his will:
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”

There are plenty of stories in the Bible where God has a change of mind or relents from a decision due to the pleading of a follower.

We also have instructions in the New Testament to make supplications to God. (E.g. James 5:16, “Pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”)

Jesus also tells a parable about a widow to goes to a judge for justice. He refuses, but she continues to pester him over and over until finally he throws his hands in the air and gives in. Jesus concludes by saying (Luke 18:7) “Will not God give justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”

I once heard a preacher say that God never really changes God’s mind, but knows of our pleadings from the beginning of time and has already ordained answers to all of our prayers, past present and future. Yet we should still pray and ask God for things because God wants us to. Maybe that’s the Calvinist approach - God has already taken into account all the prayers you will (or won’t) make.

I know Calvinism is influential, but we also need to remember it is only a subset of Protestantism and does not reflect Christianity in general terms. Most Protestants I know reject most of Calvin’s ideas.

That’s actually more of a Deistic viewpoint–often thought of as God as a clock-maker; He wound up the universe like a clock and then walked away.

I am not aware of any group that calls itself Christian that doesn’t hold to at least the theoretical possibility of God intervening in people’s lives in response to prayer.

If you don’t believe in free will, then well, you can, but you always would have, and god was already going to do whatever he was gonna do.

Many people believe in free will and will call for god’s help when things go to shit. I bet there have been some atheists in foxholes that have done the same thing.

Obviously, there are many biblical references of god answering prayer.

Disclaimer: Agnostic here, who will freely admit to saying “God, If you’re out there…” multiple times.

Sure, why not? When one petitions one’s Lord for a favorable outcome, that’s called a prayer.

Can’t do it here in America, though. We don’t have Lords (or earls, counts, dukes, princes, knights, or barons, either). It’s right there in the Constitution.

Err… Not like a biblical scholar, but didn’t Sodom get at least lightly destroyed? :wink:

If one were cynical one might suggest that God’s bargain was one he knew he’d never have to keep - especially as he’d be the one judging righteousness.

Yes, Abraham was unable to find enough righteous people in Sodom to justify sparing it.

Of course in hindsight, God knew that would be the case all along.


This is true. G-d’s answer to Abraham wasn’t on the order of “If you can find these, I’ll spare the cities.” It was more like “If these could have been found, I’d have spared the cities. Nice thoughts, Abraham, but they really are that bad.”

Possible reply to your petition:

(“God Said”/Todd Rundgren)

You can petition the lord with prayer with some chance of success if what you’re praying for is insight, understanding, the ability to make sense of the information already available to you, guidance pertaining to which path to take, a more useful and productive way of feeling and interacting with other people, or the strength to get through the stuff you’ve got to get through.

Your odds are considerably less good if what you’re praying for involves having the lord change how the other folks are behaving, modifying the natural course of age or disease or other organic / biological processes, or beseeching the lord to behave as santa claus and bestow various goodies upon you as prezzies.

I often do ask God for one thing or another.

Sometimes the answer is an obvious “yes”, less often “no”, and mostly “wait”.

It works for me.

What a coincidence-I get the same results without asking anything of any deity whatsoever.

It works for me.

To me it’s pretty clear that one of the things which influences a person’s mental image of an all-powerful God is “what would I do if I were all-powerful?” Calvin was a control freak, so… :stuck_out_tongue: People who are better at letting others make their own choices tend to be more on the side of free will. Note that in a predestination mindframe, God Himself has no choice; His own actions are as preordained as those of everybody else.

If you think of God as a Parent, different views are reflections of how different parents react to their kid bouncing on the sofa:
what do you mean, get on the sofa? I would never get on the sofa! I can’t even reach the sofa, my parent swoops down on me as soon as I breathe too loud!
“how DARE you get your feet on the sofa!!!” (gets the kid down and proceeds to deliver a beating)
“OMG get down before you get hurt!” (swoops the child down and proceeds to smother the hell out of them)
“If you keep that up you’re going to fall down and hurt yourself…” (child has a choice between keeping it up, coming down, or even asking the parent to help them down)
In all cases, the parent knows that Gravity is mightier than the sofa. But there are different levels of control and different reactions to that control being broken.

Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding
Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile
Egg-shell mind