How does God answer prayer?
Back in the day, the rock band The Doors performed a song titled "Petition the Lord with Prayer." Its refrain ran-in contrast to the title-"You cannot petition the Lord with prayer."
I am not sure what Jim Morrison had in mind when he wrote those lyrics. But in a way they imply a fair question: Why do we ask God for certain things to happen?
After all, God is all-knowing, right? God knows our needs and those of our community and the world. So how can people presume to ask God for something of which God is already aware? Doesn't that attitude show a lack of trust in God? Or do we think God to be some dozing potentate who needs a nudge to consider granting a favor?
Despite those questions, intercessory prayer has been part of Christian tradition since the beginning. Just look at Jesus. It was he who told his disciples: "Ask, and it will be given to you" (Luke 11:9). In other words, God gives us what we need. Jesus taught his disciples to pray by giving them the Lord's Prayer, which includes petitions for daily bread, forgiveness, and protection from temptation. The liturgy is full of intercessory prayer, and so is our personal prayer.
But why do we do it beyond the fact that we've always done it? I once asked a group of deacon candidates this question. They had some good answers. Intercession promotes our concern for one another, some said. It shows our dependence on God. It expresses our communion with God and others. Asking God for something demonstrates God's respect for our freedom. Finally, someone said, intercession raises our human thoughts to the divine.
Intercessory prayer is all that and more. Like all prayer, intercession is turning to God, in particular for our special needs. No, God does not answer prayers exactly as we make them. But we do believe God hears our prayers and responds to them in God's wisdom, which is always for our good. So a major part of intercessory prayer is not only asking but looking for signs of God's response. In this way intercession is a kind of discernment of God's will: Ask, and see what you receive.
Intercession is also an act of faith. Ultimately, asking God for things shows not a lack of trust in God but the opposite. Though we can be sure God knows what we need before we ask, by turning to God we entrust our lives to God's guidance, come what may. As the 18th-century French spiritual master François Fénelon once prayed, "Lord, we know not what we ought to ask of you. You alone know what we need. . . . We have no other desire than to accomplish your will. Teach us to pray! Pray yourself in us."