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Petitionary Prayer Reconsidered (Phil. 1:6)

by Carroll E. Simcox

Dr. Simcox was the former editor of the Living Church Magazine in 1987 He was residing in Hendersonville, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 4, 1987, p. 212. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Not many years ago there appeared in the spacious, and commonly specious, realm of how-to books one titled Pray Your Weight Away! I didn’t read it, but sometimes a book’s title tells everything one needs to know about both its author and its contents. A book titled Pray Your Weight Away! can be nothing other than an effort at snake-oil seduction of flabby-bodied and flabby-minded people who think of God as a senile Grandfather, by whose indulgent grace they can pray their weight away rather than dieting and exercising.

A good way to think Lentenly about prayer is to think through, as best we can, what the Lord requires of us -- if anything -- as a precondition of his granting our petitions.

Among the remembered prayers of the very wise and holy St. Thomas More is this: "The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labor for." A good example of somebody who understood this is a little girl whom Leslie Weatherhead mentioned in one of his early books. She was much troubled by the fact that her older brother trapped rabbits, and she had begged him in vain to stop. One night her mother heard her praying: "Dear God, please stop Tommy from trapping rabbits. Please don’t let them get trapped. They can’t. They won’t! Amen." Her mother, troubled and perplexed, asked, "Darling, how can you be so sure that God won’t let the rabbits be trapped?" The blessed child calmly replied:

"Because I jumped on the traps and sprung them!" Ex ore infantium. When I tell this story in sermons I see smiles. It is a charming story -- but not a cute one. It is a paradigm of Christian praying.

An ancient Hebrew legend (not in the Bible) tells us that God did not open up the Red Sea for the fleeing Israelites to pass through until one of them boldly jumped into the sea to lead the way. That man did his thing, as a prayer, before God did his thing as an answerer of prayer. It may be but a legend, but it is good sound Yahvism. The old saw that God helps those who help themselves is pagan and false, but like any heresy that is not a truth dislocated it is a truth with a falsifying twist. The truth is that God helps all those who, by starting the answer to their prayer themselves, make it possible for him to help them. Thus did that legendary Israelite. Thus did that little Christian lass. And it is the object of Thomas More’s prayer: that we may have the grace to labor for that for which we pray.

So you want to take off some pounds? (Never talk about "losing weight." Give yourself proper credit; say that you are taking off weight. Because you are. God and you together.) You may want to tell God that you’ve made this decision and would welcome his guidance. He might suggest through your good sense that you begin by talking to a good doctor or dietitian. As you diet you ask God for the necessary strength of will and the grace to persevere. Throughout the program, pray that prayer without ceasing. When you step on your scale and see that you weigh less, thank the Lord. If you feel quite jubilant about it, there’s no Christian reason why you shouldn’t exclaim to him, "We’re doing great, aren’t we?" Because you are -- God and you together. I can’t help thinking that Thomas More would approve of such causerie à Dieu. Theresa of Avila certainly would; she was, as Phyllis McGinley said of her, "God’s familiar." And Martin Luther. But we don’t need precedents or precepts from hagiography, since the Lord himself instructs us when we pray to say Abba, Father.

When you begin to pray for success in your weight reduction, you can think of it as God doing something not simply for you but in you. For this is the correct Christian understanding of prayer. When you perform an act of costly charity, it is God acting through you. It follows by analogical reasoning that if God gives you the grace to take off some pounds through diet and exercise, God himself is doing it.

Baron von Hügel spoke in a splendid phrase of how God openly crowns in us what he secretly initiates. He who begins a good work in us will carry it out, perform it (epitelesei) himself, says St. Paul (Phil. 1:6) It isn’t simply that he will "see us through" as we do it, he will do it himself in and through us. God’s grace working in us is not just some kind of strength or energy that God supplies to us from outside and above. Rather, it is God himself working in us and through us; and our exertions, with their attendant pains, if there be any, are simply our human reactions to, and sensations of, the divine working: ultimately, it is God who is praying, not we ourselves. Some great Jewish and Christian spiritual masters have been bold to say that God is prayer. That may be a dangerous phrase because of the ease with which it can be misunderstood, but it is not false. Therefore, if we are prudent, we will never ask God to do anything for us unless we are prepared to pay the price in our own blood, toil, tears or sweat -- one, some or all of these costly concomitants of the mighty workings of God in his grace -- for us, in us, through us.

Surely St. Thomas More’s is a right and godly prayer not only for Lent but for all seasons. And to it may well be added, with the same qualifications, this prayer by François Fénelon: "Lord, teach me to pray. Pray thyself in me."

God begins to pray himself in us when we begin to work out the answer to our prayer in junior partnership with him. And God with such a working-perspiring-praying partner is always a majority. St. Paul teaches that our sufficiency is in God. He might as well have said that God is our sufficiency. For that is what he eternally means, and what we have everlastingly to learn.


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