Is prayer of petition necessary if before we ask of him, he knows what we need?
It is not that he discovers what our wishes are, for it cannot be unknown to him – but through our prayers, the petitions made in us bring about the proper dispositions of desire with which we ought to receive whatever he grants us… Even when he gives slowly, it is to show us the value of his good things – he is not refusing us them.
from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger
When man approaches God with his needs, he is not approaching an oblivious god, an impotent god, nor a constrained god. It is sadly the case that man often does approach his God as if He were these things; seeking to declare to God things that He doesn’t know, to make demands of Him, and go away wondering why his prayers were not answered in the time, manner, and place of his choosing, if at all.
When it comes to the prayer of petition, there is a multitude of problems with man’s varied approaches; this is why it is most fitting that one of the most basic prayers of petition is Lord, teach me how to pray. Along with the petition, Lord, I believe, help my unbelief, this prayer marks the abandonment of man’s own vain efforts to petition God. This prayer originates from being confronted by God as a real person, whom one is now before. The soul seeks after God, to praise Him, to petition Him. It is the great longing and the great restlessness, the soul trying all that she can devise to gain the attention of God, who appears far off. Like Isaac, who prayed for countless years before being confronted by God Most High, the soul finds that her prayers are from unclean lips, so much dross, and so many babblings. Like a babe, the soul must be taught how to pray – to learn the speech of her parents so that she might communicate. The parents know how to communicate – God knows how to communicate. It is the soul that must learn to set aside her means and use the mean that God will bestow upon her.
Why does a child not get what he thinks he needs when he asks for it from his parents? This is because the parents have a better understanding of what the child actually needs, what will best help the child grow, and what will best bring about a more ready achievement of a virtuous life for the child. As a child grows, he will learn how the good things that his parents wish to give are both better for him as well as more pleasing for his parents to give. This is analogous to God, who knows us better than ourselves. It is more pleasing to God that we should ask for His good things, rather than the things of our appetites, and the more we seek, receive, and utilize His good things, the more we grow in the moral and spiritual life. The more we grow, the more we will seek and ask only for His good things, and the more readily He will bestow them upon us.
God knows what we need, we start off not knowing. Just as with prayer, it is something that we must learn. Prayer of petition is therefore not us informing God of needs that He is already aware of, but it is us being informed by God of both the things that we actually should ask for and the means by which we should go about asking.
The ultimate thing that God wishes for us to petition Him for is Himself. To receive Him as He is, to see Him face to face is no small thing. It is for this reason that God’s lesser good things, that He promises to give as well, might tarry in their coming. Man’s inclination to sin, concupiscence, creates a tendency to become distracted and to fall short of the glory of God, especially through becoming complacent, settling for less than his teleological end, and ultimately creating idols out of lesser things, even good things. God must train the soul who seeks Him to prefer to petition for Him, to receive Him, over the other good things that He indeed gives.