Have you been asked to sign a petition? If not, you must live in a cave! I still remember my very first involvement with a petition. (Of course that statement is based on the assumption that I wasn’t involved with an earlier petition that I’ve forgotten about.) I was a high school student, and under the influence of an environmentally-oriented teacher. I circulated petitions for what was known as Michigan’s Bottle Bill. It was the bill that put a mandatory deposit on plastic bottles and cans and eliminated the pull off tabs from the drink cans. We young activists knew that if we gathered enough names, our legislators would act. We understood that if we gathered but a few names, they wouldn’t. In short, we knew that when it came to getting what we wanted, there was strength in numbers.
This is a principle that generally applies to all petitions. Whether it is TV viewers petitioning a network, citizens petitioning the mayor or the school board, or activists petitioning a corporate board of directors, the principle is the same. The longer the petition, the greater the chance the petitionee will grant the petition.
Look again at that last sentence. I used the word petition in two different ways. In the first instance, I used it to refer to the list of signers. In the second instance, I used it to refer to the actual request. I suspect that this dual usage of the word may have contributed to some confusion in our spiritual lives.
Note these two Scripture passages:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Phil. 4:6)
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—“ (1 Tim. 2:1)
These passages encourage us to petition God. In this instance, the word is being used in the sense of the latter usage I mentioned above. I believe that we know this. However, I fear that we functionally misappropriate the meaning of this word. We sometimes behave as if the former usage is meant. This is evidenced by the many mutations of the statement, “We need to get as many people as possible to pray about this.”
Jesus talked about mustard-seed-sized faith. James talked about the prayer of, “a righteous person,” being, “powerful and effective.” Yet some of our prayer-requesting habits suggest we seek something different. We seek strength in numbers. We behave as if God is like all the other powers that be who we petition. We behave as if it is the quantity of petitioners that matters most to God. We behave as if God is more likely to grant our requests if they are bolstered by a large number of other requesters.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we never ask others to join us in prayer. I’m suggesting that we not get carried away. I’m suggesting that we not insult God by attributing to him the characteristic of all those other petitionees in our lives. It’s something to cerebrate…