Some Christians question the value of petitionary prayer. You know, asking God for things. They frown on prayer for mundane requests like healing from sickness and safe travel. They urge prayer only for spiritual matters such as patience, trust, and perseverance. Karl Rahner (1904-1984) offers a vigorous defense of petitionary prayer. Jesus doesn’t pray in the Garden of Gethsemane for ethereal requests, he petitions the Father for his mortal life to be spared even as he entrusts his future to God. He teaches in the Lord’s Prayer to ask boldly for daily bread, forgiveness of enemies and deliverance from temptation. Rahner also reminds readers that Jesus’ petition, “Thy will be done” precedes all other requests in the prayer. Jesus let go of desired results and modeled the refusal to make an idol of what we want. Rahner was indisputably the preeminent Catholic theologian of the 20th century. He taught theology and philosophy at leading German universities for fifty years and was a central figure in Vatican Council II. Rarely do we encounter someone so heady about theology who was also so accomplished as a devotional writer. He was equally skilled at teaching theology to graduate students as he was in leading prayer retreats for his home congregation in Munich. Rahner lived by the conviction that God is both the transcendent mystery who rules the universe and intimate Presence who sustains and guides us. The book published in the last year of his life, Prayer for a Lifetime, was collected from various periods of his life. I hardly know which prayer to offer here:
Gracious God, I adore you as the Lord of the stars. I praise you as the source of all beauty. I worship you as the fulfillment of my longings. I thank you as the giver of all good gifts. I put before you my prayers for a peaceful heart, loving relationships and a just world. I realize these are gifts from you, and that I must cooperate with your grace in pursuing them. All my words of adoration and petition seem so feeble. They seem to float off into empty space. Please help me persevere in lifting my mind and heart to you.
Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.