Marcy Rebandt

REL 319

Prof. Westblade

November 28, 2003



Petitioning God



Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon entitled, “The Most High a Prayer Hearing God,” he addresses the topic of Prayer and how God responds to prayer. The question is regarding the petitioning prayers, in which a person asks God for some gift or mercy. This kind of prayer is spoken of often in Scripture, but the Christian is commanded to have two opposing attitudes about this kind of prayer. These two attitudes provoke the following questions: Does God change his plans or intentions if we pray with enough faith? Or does man merely change his own attitude and outlook when he bows before God in dependence and worship? According to Jonathan Edwards, when we pray as we should, the prayer transforms our wills in order that we trust God to do that which is according to His will and mercy in our lives, and that God, who hears our prayers with pleasure will work in our lives that which is merciful to us and in accord with his will.

C. S. Lewis sums up the question very well in his essay, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer.” According to Lewis, the nature of the question is regarding the prayers that make known a request to God. This kind of prayer is spoken often of in Scripture: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”[1] Lewis points out that even Jesus used the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, requesting “daily bread”.[2] In his explanation of the question, Lewis says that there are two kinds of prayer that are spoken of in Scripture as the correct way to petition God. First is what Lewis calls “the A Pattern”, the practice of adding a condition to our requests: “Thy will be done.”[3] This conditional pattern is one that acknowledges that despite a person’s requesting a thing, God should do according to His own will. This form of prayer also prepares the person making the request for the possibility of not receiving what he is asking, and could then acknowledge that God has something better in his plan. Lewis points out that even Jesus, when praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, petitioned God to keep him from having to die with the condition, “Nevertheless, not my will but Thine.”[4] The other form of prayer that Lewis discusses is the one he calls “the B Pattern.” This pattern is one that requires the petitioner to make his requests with confidence that the mercy or gift he requests will indeed be given to him.[5] The faith required for this kind of praying is what Lewis calls, “crude faith”, or the “faith in the granting of the blessing asked”.[6] This faith is not a faith in that the Giver is good and will do what is good, but that if one requests something with enough faith, it will indeed be given to him. These two attitudes in prayer: humble submission to God’s will and an unhindered confidence in the granting of the request – are seemingly contradictory.

Lewis humbly admits that he does not understand how it is that the Christian should pray in light of the two examples of prayer. If the Christian is to pray by submitting himself to God’s will, how then can one have the faith to expect to receive the thing he has requested? Or if he is to pray with the uninhibited confidence that his requests will be granted in order for them to be fulfilled, how does one explain the circumstances under which the request is not granted? It appears that Jonathan Edwards may have an answer, or at least some useful input, for the questions at hand in his sermon about the “Prayer Hearing God.”

Jonathan Edwards first addresses the duty of man in the act of prayer and in what attitude he should perform this duty. Edwards first believed that one should exhibit a dependence on God in his going before him to make known his requests. This act is one that gives respect to God and as Edwards says, God “accepts the honor they do him in prayer.”[7] God is honored by man’s show of dependence. Edwards defines prayer as “a sensible acknowledgement of our dependence on Him to do his glory.”[8] This phrase, “to do his glory”, is the same kind of conditional petitions as Lewis’s “A Pattern prayers. The psalmist says that God “shall regard the prayer of the destitute, and shall not despise their prayer.”[9] Edwards believes that God even takes delight in the reception of our prayers as humble and dependent. Once again in his looking at what attitudes should be present in prayer, he says that “prayer is a show or manifestation of dependence on God.”[10] Still, a humble dependence on God for all good and merciful gifts is not the only attitude that Jonathan Edwards believes is essential for true prayer.

In prayer, Edwards believes that it is necessary to have a sense of submission to God’s will. He argues that when God hears a man’s prayer, “It is fit that He should answer prayer, and, as an infinitely wise God, in the exercise of his own wisdom, and not ours.”[11] This admission claims that God is the one who knows better than men could themselves, what is the best thing for them. One who has the right attitude in prayer must question his own ability to judge what the most desirous thing is for him. Edwards compares the Christian’s petitions to God to the child’s petitions to his father: “But a child is not to expect that the father’s wisdom be subject to him; nor ought he to desire it, but should esteem it a privilege, that the parent will provide for him according to his own wisdom.”[12] This attitude does, in fact, prepare the petitioner for God’s possible refusal of his request. It is in his acknowledgment of his own inability in judging what is best that he makes room for God to do what truly is best, whether in accordance with his request or not. As the child of God prays in this manner, he becomes more and more desirous that God should do His will in his life. In this way, the promise of Psalm 37:4 is kept: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” This promise assumes that when we are delighting ourselves in the Lord, our desires will be within the will of God. Jonathan Edwards adds still another qualifier onto what is true prayer.

According to Edwards, another essential ingredient to a true prayer is that of faith. He goes so far to say that a “prayer which is not of faith is insincere.”[13] In other words, if a person is unbelieving that God will actually hear and answer his prayer, or even doubt God’s ability to perform that which he is requesting, it is not a sincere prayer that God will be inclined to hear. Edwards says that “Men sometimes seem to pray, while not sensible of their dependence on God, nor do they think him sufficient to supply them; for all the while they trust in themselves, and have no confidence in God.”[14] Here, Edwards is referring to the instances when people pray with an insincere dependence on God. They really do not believe God is able to do what they ask, and pray only as a formality. At the same time, they trust in themselves to achieve what they are asking for from God. Edwards asserts that God is not required to hear a faithless or unbelieving prayer, which is why faith is such an important ingredient to the practice.

True prayer, according to Edwards, would be that which humbly bows before God who is “sitting on a mercy-seat,” and makes his requests of God believing that he will perform them if they are according to His will. This kind of prayer that is not focused on the petitioner himself, or even so much on his request, but on the promises and character of God, will naturally lead to praise and worship of God. This kind of prayer, then prepares the heart of the one praying for the blessings that God will pour down on him. Edwards says that God requires prayer from us before he blesses us because it “tends to prepare us for its reception.”[15] Now that man is fully prepared to receive God’s blessing, he answers in a way that is best according to His plan, His glory, and our good.

According to Edwards, the chief end of man’s prayer is to glorify God. Therefore the greatest reason that God has in receiving prayer is that it glorifies Him. When a man has the correct approach to the practice of making requests to God, Edwards says that God takes delight in his prayer. He is honored by dependence on him, and takes delight in praises offered. “We, when we desire to receive any mercy from him, should humbly suplicate the Divine Being for the bestowment of that mercy,” for, as Edwards says, it “is but a suitable acknowledgement of our dependence on the power and mercy of God for that which we need.”[16] Our dependence on God glorifies him so that he is pleased to hear our prayers. Yet, this is not the only response that God makes to prayer.

God is glorified in our submission to his will, and will hear and answer our prayers because it is glorifying to Him. Edwards notes, “As he hath made all things for his own glory, so he will be glorified and acknowledged by his creatures; and it is fit that he should require this of those who would be the subjects of his mercy.”[17] God had a plan that he will work out in the lives of men, but he has made prayer into an instrumental part of that plan. This is why it is still important to pray, even if we believe that whether we pray or not God will still accomplish his will. The prayers of men are expressions of their smallness and God’s infinite greatness, and this glorifying of God is an instrumental part of God’s plan.

In response to the faithfulness of men’s prayers, God will hear the requests and answer them better than they could expect. It is important not only to have a tone of humble dependence and submission, but there needs to be faith, for “God looketh not at words, but at the heart.”[18] When God looks at the heart, he notices whether or not what is pouring from the petitioner’s heart is sincere or not. Man cannot fool God about his motives, and God will not look favorably on unbelieving prayers. Edwards asks, if man is not sincere in his prayers, “why should God who searches the heart, and tries the reins, have any respect to them?”[19] Therefore, a person who prays believing that God will answer him, and will give him what he asks provided it is within His will, he does not need to fear that God will not respect his prayer. Still, Edwards notes that even a faithful prayer will not necessarily achieve the ends that the petitioner is expecting.

Most importantly, Edwards points out that petitionary prayer is not chiefly for the purpose of receiving what we ask for. The main purpose is to acknowledge “our dependence to his glory.”[20] He says that prayer is not even for the purpose of “informing” God: “He is omniscient, and with respect to his knowledge, unchangeable.”[21] Because he is unchangeable in his knowledge and does not need to be informed of our needs, he has no reason to then change in his purposes. Edwards would say that God, indeed, does not change in his plans, but makes himself to be “represented as if he were moved and persuaded by the prayers of his people.”[22] He believes that God, in order to bring more glory to himself, makes the appearance of being changed in his will and plan as a result of prayer. He says further that “it is no more possible that there should be any new inclination or will in God, than new knowledge.”[23] God is unchangeable, as Edwards understands, and by using prayer as part of His plan of action, prepares the hearts of men to glorify Him when He supplies their needs. Edwards again says, “It is the will of God to bestow mercy in this way, viz. in answer to prayer, when he designs beforehand to bestow mercy, yea, when he has promised it.”[24] When men pray for those things which God has promised, they can pray with faith, knowing that they are praying within God’s will.

But one may ask, what of the instances where Abraham and Moses each persuaded the Lord to change his mind about vengeance he had purposed to take. How can Edwards explain the “relenting” of God when Moses persuades him not to destroy the Israelites?[25] And what could Edwards reply to the example of Abraham pleading with the Lord to lower the number of righteous for which he would turn away his wrath from Sodom?[26] In both cases, it appears that God has changed his mind on a matter because someone has pled with him about it. When Moses pleads with God, the Bible says that God “relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.”[27] The question that Edwards must answer now is, did God really relent, or does the Scripture misrepresent the truth? Edwards would say that there is a third option. God never actually said that he was going to destroy Israel. Instead he says to Moses, “Let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them,” which is actually spoken in a tone that invites Moses to plead with him not to do this. Edwards would say that God’s purpose in regard to the Israelites did not actually change, but that he was bringing glory to himself and changing the attitude of Moses by inviting prayer from him. In a similar manner, Abraham pled with the Lord to spare Sodom. He eventually was able to receive a promise that the Lord would not destroy Sodom if there were as many as ten righteous. Edwards could argue that yes, Abraham was able to change the stated decision of the Lord in regard to the conditions of the destruction of Sodom, but in the end there were not even ten righteous in Sodom and it was destroyed. Therefore, God’s purposes did not change, but only the appearances of his purposes did. One could ask, what glory could God gain from this kind of interaction with the pleadings of man? The answer is that even in the pleadings and petitions that Abraham and Moses make, they bring glory to God by showing how dependent they are on him. When God finally “relents,” his merciful goodness is accentuated by the relief that is felt at the passing of his anger. Moses realizes that God would have been just and able to completely destroy Israel, but when God chooses not to, his mercy seems that much more real.

Though Jonathan Edwards may not have completely answered the question that C. S. Lewis asked, Edwards makes it plain that having both of the aspects of prayer that Lewis brings attention to are important for God to answer. And even as one looks at the explanation that Edwards gives, perhaps the point is that although the two patterns of prayer do not seem to fit together on the human level, if one looks at it from God’s perspective it makes perfect sense.


[1]           The Holy Bible, NKJV. Philippians 4:6

[2]           C. S. Lewis, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer,” in Christian Reflections, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967): 142.

[3]           Ibid., 143.

[4]           Ibid., 143.

[5]          Ibid., 144.

[6]           Ibid., 150.

[7]           Jonathan Edwards, “The Most High a Prayer Hearing God,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2, (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 1834), 114.

[8]           Ibid., 116.

[9]           NKJV, Psalm 102:17.

[10]          Edwards, “Prayer Hearing God”, 117.

[11]          Edwards, “Prayer Hearing God”, 117.

[12]          Ibid.

[13]          Ibid.

[14]          Ibid.

[15]          Ibid., 116.

[16]          Ibid.

[17]          Ibid.

[18]          Ibid., 117

[19]          Ibid.

[20]          Ibid.

[21]          Ibid., 115.

[22]          Ibid.

[23]          Ibid., 116.

[24]          Ibid.

[25]          NKJV, Exodus 32:9–14.

[26]          NKJV, Genesis 18: 22-33.

[27]          NKJV, Exodus 32:14.