Chapter 3: Prayer as Confession and Petition

Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 3: Prayer as Confession and Petition

In the preceding chapter there was an outline of the constituent elements that make up a natural sequence of prayer, with a more detailed analysis of the place of adoration and thanksgiving. These are the primary notes of worship. In them one finds the lift and surge of the soul toward God. But prayer has also a large place for the expression of the worshiper’s need. We must now look further at these more human notes.

The Prayer of Confession

Confession, we said, follows naturally upon a sense of gratitude to God for his many and great gifts. Only a churlish and dull soul could contemplate the richness and beauty of God’s world, or the opportunities which in spite of minor frustrations surround us, without being prompted to ask, "Am I worthy of this?" And the obvious answer is, "I am not." It is a mark of religious insensitiveness that instead of grateful recognition of unworthiness to receive the gifts of God, there is so often acceptance without gratitude or contrition but with complaint when things go wrong. Though there is no single evidence by which to discern a Christian, there is an index by which one may test his own experience. Confronted by pain and annoyance does one say, "Why does this have to happen to me?" Or encompassed by God’s bounties does one say, "Who am I that I should be thus blest?" The former reaction is the mark of self-pity and self-righteousness, the latter of Christian humility.

Confession of sin and unworthiness, though imperative, has its pitfalls, and some cautions need to be interposed. One ought not mechanically to confess a catalogue of sins, for there is no more of contrition in the saying of contrite words than in the reading of any other catalogue. The Catholic confessional with its questions for moral inventory has great value in stirring the individual to self-examination and penitence; it gives rise to great abuses when such confession is taken too lightly. The Protestant churches would do well to encourage the use of some such series of questions for self-examination before God; but the questions need genuinely to be asked by and about the individual for himself. See my Religious Living, p. 41, for a suggested list of such questions.)

Confession of individual sins ought not usually to be made publicly. This is not to deny the rightness of either corporate confession of guilt in public worship or individual witness to the redeeming power of God. There is a valuable, even a necessary, place for both. What must be avoided is public confession of sin that runs into exhibitionism. Not merely because it is bad taste to air one’s private life in public, but more because it is bad religion, care needs to be taken not to make the inner life a matter of display. There is a touch of the Pharisee thanking God that his sins are not as commonplace as those of other men when one delights to tell a dramatic tale of sins formerly engaged in and renounced.

Again, one ought not morbidly to dig around in his consciousness for sins to confess even privately. Honest, rigorous self-examination with the stripping off of rationalizations and alibis is required. Bending backward and straining to lift the weight of one’s sin out of an imagined cesspool of iniquity is not! By this procedure one incurs spiritual fatigue but seldom finds rest in God. It is a basic fact of religious experience that the least guilty people are most sensitive to their sin. This is right, but to substitute for penitence a distorted self-accusation is a psychological aberration which does not betoken either mental or spiritual health. It is on the one hand necessary to maintain a searching sense of guilt -- which psychologists often decry -- and on the other, to keep this sense of guilt from getting out of bonds --which religionists have often overlooked. (See Paul E. Johnson, Psychology of Religion, pp. 214-221 for a brief but very discerning treatment of sin and guilt and of the relations of confession and forgiveness to psychotherapy.) Only genuine humility and penitence before God in conjunction with trust in his forgiving mercy can keep the balance true.

With these safeguards, how then shall we proceed in an act of contrition?

In the greatest of all prayers we are taught to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." This does not mean, of course, that there can be any exact balancing of God’s forgiveness and ours. God does not do business by keeping a ledger, and what in his overflowing mercy he forgives in us is far beyond what in our limited righteousness we are able to forgive in others. What it probably means -- and says in language so terse that any explanation is cumbersome -- is that we cannot expect God’s forgiveness until we open the way for it by trying to put away rancor toward others. We cannot hope to be forgiven until we "bring forth . . . fruit worthy of repentance" by our attitudes toward our fellow men.

Both in the fact of sin and in deliverance from it by penitence and forgiveness, what is involved is not a relation between God and the sinner only. Nor is it a relation solely in moral terms between the sinner and other men. It is a threefold relation involving God, ourselves, and other persons. Sin is disobedience to the will of God; but God’s will is disobeyed not only by rebellious attitudes toward him but by unloving acts and attitudes toward his human children. It would be unnecessary to labor this point except that sin is often conceived too narrowly either as something to be settled with God only, or on the other hand as merely calling for reform in human relations. The first mistake is made by those who are ready to sing or say,

‘Tis done: the great transaction’s done!

I am my Lord’s, and He is mine,

and forget that anything else is required. The second is the pitfall of a great deal of contemporary moralizing which assumes that though plenty of sin is abroad in society, God has little if anything to do with setting it right.

What shall we confess? As was suggested earlier, most of the persons likely to read this book do not need to confess the grosser sins of the flesh. The very fact that one has never incurred the overt condemnation of society or fallen into the toils of the law may induce a false complacency and dull one’s awareness of sin. An important reason for the chaos and meaningless of much of present-day life is the lack of any clear grasp of the reality of sin in its subtler forms. Not drunkenness, adultery, or theft, but self-love, self-righteousness, self-seeking, the will to power and prestige, unkindness, anger and vindictiveness, irresponsibility, complacency before the suffering of the world, willful narrowing of vision to the interests of one’s own family, community, race, or nation are among the major sins of most people. Only as a sensitive conscience on these matters is aroused can we hope for much in the way of either social salvation or the individual remaking of life.

When by rigorous self-examination we have become aware of our offenses and omissions, particularly in these more insidious forms, what then? Two procedures, apparently contradictory, are essential. One is to leave our sin with God, not in an agony of remorse but in trustful confidence of his understanding, forgiving mercy. Restitution must be made if possible and forgiveness asked for any injury done to another. But even when no restitution is possible and human forgiveness is not granted, we can still know that if we are truly repentant, God does not charge the offense against us. Our burden of guilt lifted, we can go forward in quiet resolution. As it is put in the classic words of the Prayer of General Confession:

Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life; to the glory of thy holy name.

The other necessity is to continue to be conscious of "the sin which doth so easily beset us." Though we confess today in humble penitence and know ourselves cleansed by God’s forgiveness, we must know also, if we are not blinded by arrogance or false hopes, that tomorrow we shall need to say again:

We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

This dual awareness of God’s forgiving and empowering grace and our ever-present need of it leads to the next element in prayer, the mood of petition.


Prayer is so often identified with petition that to put the discussion of it so far along in our analysis may seem artificial. Most people, when they pray, pray because they want something. Only the most advanced forms of wordless communion or the most meager habit-prayers lack this element.

There can be no doubt that petition is a dominant part of prayer. How dominant it ought to be, and what petitions ought to be offered, are questions calling for further examination.

In many discussions of prayer, petition if not ruled out is placed on the lower rounds of the ladder. (See, for example, Gerald Heard, A Preface to Prayer, in which prayer is distinguished as low, middle, and high, low prayer being petitionary prayer for oneself, middle prayer petition for others, and high prayer the prayer of "simple attention.") I have many times heard and read that the true end of prayer is to cultivate fellowship with God, seeking not to have anything from his hand but only to be in his presence. As has earlier been suggested, this seems to me to rest on a false antithesis.

Certainly, to be in fellowship with God and in right relations with him is a higher aspiration than to possess anything else we may desire. But does this discredit the prayer of petition? On the contrary, it calls for discrimination in petitioning. All prayer springs from a sense of need. What is required is not to eliminate petition, which would eliminate the expression of desire, but to purge and redirect desire until we pray for the right things.

The questions that center around the legitimacy of petition and the possibility of its answer had better be classified and taken up separately. The principal types of petition are for a sense of God’s presence, for spiritual and moral help, for material goods, for changes in external events, for the recovery of health. These tend to converge with one another, yet each presents a particular angle of the matter. Another large and closely related issue, that of intercessory prayer, we shall defer to the next chapter.

For a Sense of God’s Presence

The prayer for a sense of God’s presence, often referred to as the prayer of communion, belongs in the midst of every other kind of prayer. All prayer is the opening of the soul to God to discover his presence. This does not mean the spanning of a gulf between ourselves and a distant God. The body, we are told by Paul, is the "temple of the Holy Spirit," and in God "we live, and move, and have our being." God is more than man, yet God is always in man. We are not always aware of this presence, and what prayer does is to lift the veil interposed by preoccupation with self and the affairs of the world. Such awareness of the presence of God cannot automatically be turned on and off like an electric light, and this is why a measure of quiet and unhurried rest is necessary for the most meaningful praying.

There is, however, no reason why desire for God’s presence should banish every other desire. In the richest of human relations such as those of lover with beloved, husband and wife, child and understanding parent, friend and friend, fellowship on a high plane intensifies desire for the values mutually prized. Similarly but on a higher level, the knowledge of God’s presence and a sense of being in fellowship with him cleanses and ennobles aspiration for values believed to be pleasing to him. The type of mystical communion which breaks connections with life and centers in ecstatic enjoyment of God may well be viewed with suspicion. The other, fortunately more common, type which gives vitality to all good impulses and enriches normal social connections lies at the base of religious experience. (For further analysis of the difference between the via negativa of much of classical mysticism and the second type, called by Rufus M. Jones "affirmation mysticism," see Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism; J. B. Pratt, The Religious Consciousness, chs. xvi, xvii; and many of the writings of Rufus Jones, especially The Testimony of the Soul, ch. x.)

For Moral and Spiritual Help

Thus it appears that the prayer for moral and spiritual help is so closely related to the prayer for God’s presence that no clear line can be drawn between them. There is a difference, however, in the fact that here attention to the worshiper’s need is more direct and immediate.

To this type belong most of the great, time-honored prayers of the Church. It is a useful exercise to look over the collects of the Book of Common Prayer and note how the verbs that express such need on the part of the worshiper stand out on every page. Guard, defend, deliver, protect, strengthen, bless, replenish, comfort, relieve, pardon, spare, guide, direct -- these simple, bold imperatives carry the aspiration of the ages for a power not of man’s own making.

It is in the petition for moral and spiritual help that most of our praying ought to center. What is sometimes referred to as the "gimme" prayer will recede into the background if it is replaced by the petition that God will give us the wisdom and strength to meet his high demands. Here belongs the prayer of cleansing that must accompany self-examination and confession:

Create in me a clean heart, O God;

And renew a right spirit within me.

Here belongs the prayer for light:

Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold

Wondrous things out of thy law.

Show me thy ways, O Lord;

Teach me thy paths.

Here belongs the prayer of Solomon for an understanding heart:

Give thy servant therefore an under-

standing heart to judge thy people, that I

may discern between good and evil.

Here belongs the collect for inner purity, probably better known and loved than any other prayer outside of the Bible:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord.

Here belongs the prayer for direction of the spirit of worship:

Almighty God, from whom every good prayer cometh, and who pourest out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and supplication; deliver us, when we draw nigh to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship thee in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here belongs the prayer for grace to meet the demands of the day:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day; defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger, but that all our doings, being ordered by thy governance, may be righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

There is nothing within the range of pure emotion and high aspiration that may not thus be made the subject of prayer. Whether one uses the words of the Bible or a traditional collect or formulates his own prayer is immaterial, provided what is expressed is the voice of the soul. Psychologically, the act of praying centers attention on the higher emotions, unifies the spirit, crystallizes motives, clarifies the judgment, releases latent powers, reinforces confidence that what needs to be done can be done. Religiously, the power of God who is ever waiting to bestow his strength on those who will receive it finds a channel.

The benefits of such praying are seldom disputed. But the question is often raised as to whether such benefits are not "all psychological." What is generally meant is whether they are not entirely subjective and self-induced. The answer lies in what was said in chapter one about the nature of God and his relations with men. If there is a personal God who has made us and sustains us, he hears and responds to prayer. Even if the response is wholly within the individual who prays and what happens can be described in psychological terms, it is still God’s response. Unless there is such a God, no prayer has meaning. To deny that God acts to give us moral and spiritual help is an implicit atheism.

There are fewer pitfalls in the prayer for spiritual help than in the petition for special gifts. Yet even here a caution needs to be interposed. Too often the whole value of a prayer is judged by emotional awareness of change in one’s inner states, and if one does not feel differently after having prayed, he begins to wonder if there is anything to it. To make such a subjective test is to forget that prayer is directed toward God, not toward ourselves. If with the psalmist one says, "I have set the Lord always before me," and really means it, he will not then be worried as to what happens in himself. Yet as time goes on and prayer in faith becomes the undergirding power of his life, he will be aware that changes within have taken place, and he will be disposed to say gratefully, "Thus far the Lord hath led me on."

For Material Goods

When we consider prayers for material goods, we must move much more cautiously. At one extreme such prayer simply puts our own self-centered wishes in the foreground. From the child who prays for a longed-for toy to the adult who prays for good weather or for good luck in business, there is not a little praying which amounts to saying, "O God, I want this. Give me what I want." At the other extreme, whether from belief that God will not thus change the course of events or that such praying is too clamorous, many draw the line at any petition except that for inner spiritual goods.

The truth lies between. When Jesus taught us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," there is no good reason to suppose that he meant spiritual bread alone. Daily bread means daily sustenance and provision for the body as well as the soul. Our heavenly Father, he tells us elsewhere, "knoweth that [we] have need of all these things." Where there is any deep-seated need, it is fitting that such need be expressed before God in prayer.

There are dangers in praying for material goods, for such petition easily passes over into a selfish demand which evades responsibility, or into the expectation that a private miracle may be wrought in our behalf. It is not legitimate to pray for food, clothing, shelter, money for an education or a home, success in one’s vocation or any other material pursuit, and do nothing further about it. God does not send manna from heaven for the mere wishing, not even when it is very fervent and pious wishing. If he did, human initiative would be sapped, and prayer would become a form of magical connivance to get what we wanted out of God. Yet every one of the above petitions is legitimate, provided it is needed for our fullest living and is offered in the spirit of responsible co-operation with God and his orderly ways of working. To rule out such praying would rule out large areas of life so vital to us that they must have a vital place in the concern of a loving God. God’s interest in his human children is in their whole being, not in spirit only.

The question as to whether such prayers can expect an answer in the outward order of events, or only in direction and strengthening of the resolution to secure such needed goods for ourselves, carries us on to the fourth angle of petition.

For Changes in External Events

The prayer for changes in external events, like the prayer for material goods with which it is so closely related, is subject to great abuses. It covers a wider area than the items just noted, for it includes not only such physical matters as rain or fair weather but such vital spiritual issues as the opening up of opportunities for personal enrichment or for service, the well-being of loved ones, the establishment of peace on earth. It merges with the problem of intercessory prayer, of which more will be said presently. Conceived too loosely, the expectation of changes in the order of nature breeds false praying and raises false hopes. To conceive it too narrowly is to exclude from prayer elements which are natural and legitimate, and tends to mechanize our conception of God.

To look at a concrete example, one plans to take a trip by automobile. He has his motor, tires, and brakes checked. He is feeling well and has never taken a drink in his life. As far as anyone can discover, both car and driver are in prime condition. The route to be followed has no special hazard in it, and many have taken it in safety and enjoyment. Can one be sure, then, as he starts out that he will arrive?

The fact is, he cannot be sure, and no amount of praying will guarantee it. Accidents occur through unforeseen and often unpredictable circumstances. When "an irresistible force meets an immovable object," something smashes. This something may be a human body, and no prayer, whether in the name of Saint Christopher or direct to the Almighty, will prove an unerring talisman.

But does this mean it is stupid or improper to pray for a safe journey? It does not. Ordinarily one does not think of praying unless the trip has something particularly hazardous about it, but there is no reason why one should not. God is concerned with our downsitting and our uprising, our going out and our coming in. What prayer can do, at the least, is to give clear judgment and the best use of one’s powers in normal situations, firmness of nerve in emergencies. If it did only this, many accidents would be prevented and many events redirected for good.

But is this all? Beyond this it is not well to claim for oneself miracles and special deviations from the order of nature. But this is not to say that everything is bound to happen in a fixed order of events. God acts in orderly, but not in mechanical, ways. Natural law does not mean a closed system within which no purpose can be expressed. Every human act, whether of driving a car, writing a book, or laying down one’s life for another, is an expression of purpose within a realm of law. If as human creatures we are not so confined by law but that events can be made to happen within the order of nature in response to purpose, surely God is not so limited.

Beyond certain limits we cannot -- and God apparently does not -- go. This is why we need in many matters to pray as Jesus did in the garden, "My Father, if it be possible." (Matt. 26:39) Yet within wide limits, prayer even for the direction of events makes a difference, and ought to be engaged in. If we are not sure where the limits lie, the best course is to pray in humble trust and leave with God the boundaries of possibility.

For the Recovery of Health

This brings us to a fifth kind of petition, the special case of prayers for the recovery of health. We shall speak mainly of prayers for one’s own recovery, leaving the matter of prayer for those we love for later discussion.

Prayer for health and physical well-being involves no different principles from those already stated in reference to other forms of petition. It is, however, a special problem, both because some people pray in sickness who never think of doing so at any other time and because it unites in a particular way all the other types of petition.

To pray only in sickness is not a very commendable practice. It savors too much of a self-righteous assumption that the rest of the time we can run our own affairs. A familiar old couplet, has much point in it for ourselves:

The Devil was sick -- the Devil a monk would be;

The Devil was well -- the Devil a monk was he.

Nevertheless, to pray in sickness is better than not to pray at all, and it may open the way to a firmer grounding of the soul in religious faith. Nothing ought to be scorned which turns anybody toward God.

Prayers for recovery ought to be viewed in the light of several unities, to overlook any of which is to cloud the issue. These are the unity of sickness and health, of body and spirit, of the freedom of the individual with the fixities of nature, of the relation of God to his total created world.

The unity of sickness and health means that there is no abrupt cleavage between these states. Though there are, of course, sudden illnesses of very serious proportions, the power of the body to resist sudden strain depends much on factors of long standing. Prayer for health should not begin when sickness strikes, but should pervade one’s total life in terms of prayer for a right use of the body and the right dedication of its powers to God’s service.

The unity of body and spirit is the primary ground for faith in the efficacy of prayer of this type. Though disease germs know nothing of prayer, the spirit of the person on whose body they feed can by calmness and care fight a good fight against their onslaughts. In most forms of illness -- and perhaps it is not an overstatement to say in every illness -- nervous tension retards recovery, relaxation furthers it. Many illnesses are mainly derived from nerve strain, some completely so, and these have no better cure than the psychological rest that comes from prayer. What used to be scoffed at as "faith healing" has now, with safeguards, a reputable place in psychosomatic medicine. In, any form of sickness, what must be done is to give the body’s own marvelous recuperative power a chance. (See the remarkable essay on "God and Health" in Russell L. Dicks, Thy Health Shall Spring Forth, pp. 84-49.) One ought to have the best medical care available and take all the precautions possible. Yet often the most curative thing one can do is to rest quietly in God, saying to oneself in these words or others:

Leave it all quietly to God, my soul,

my rescue comes from him alone;

Rock, rescue, refuge, he is all to me,

never shall I be overthrown. (Ps. 62:1-2 from The Bible: A New Translation by James Moffatt. Copyright 1935 by Harper & Bros).

The unity of the individual’s freedom and the fixities of nature means, as was said in reference to changes in external events, that some things -- but not all things -- can be wrought by prayer. One ought in any illness to pray for the best use of human strength and skill and the release of the body’s forces of recuperation and repair. There are many forms of illness in which the outcome apparently is open rather than fixed, and the doctor’s prediction may be in error. In others, to expect prayer to alter the outcome is to defy everything we know about nature. A man with a bullet through his brain or his heart will not survive even if he prayed earnestly before the battle. An amputated leg will not grow on again. Some things must be accepted as the end -- the irrevocable end -- of organs used or powers formerly freely enjoyed. Prayer then becomes, not petition for recovery, but for grace to go on with what is left.

Finally, the relation of God to his total created world has a bearing on all we have discussed. If this is God’s world, he can do much -- in us, through us, for us -- in response to prayer. But if it is God’s world, we must adapt ourselves to it, not expecting either God or the world to be adapted to our pleasure. It often happens that "a thorn in the flesh," or even a deeper thorn in the spirit, continues after many years of praying. When it does, we must accept it, not in complaining rebellion or even in stoic resignation, but in spiritual victory. If we can with Paul hear God saying, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness," then we can also say with Paul, "When I am weak, then am I strong."

It is in the power God imparts to work with him to do his will in spite of the frustration of deep desires that the true focus of petition lies. The prayer "Let this cup pass from me" finds its fruition and completion in "nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done."