St. Augustine reminds us that no prayer is useless.
We learn as children that praying doesn’t always “work”: we prayed and still failed that math test, we prayed and still were ignored by our crush, we prayed and our sick grandmother never got better. As adults, our worries increase, as do our disappointments in prayer: we pray and still don’t get hired, we pray and still our spouse wanders, we pray and we ourselves never get better. So, what’s the point? Why pray for things that we want if we don’t always get them? Is God listening? Does God care?
Of course, he does. But not in the way that we might expect. To correct the common notion of God as an invisible granter of wishes, Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount: “When praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7–8).
This is a profound statement on the nature of prayer. Jesus teaches that God never learns of our needs. Our prayer reveals nothing to him, for he already knows everything. Thus, we shouldn’t pray like the pagans, who think that their prayers introduce human need to the divine mind. Rather, our prayer should acknowledge the fact of God’s omniscient providence. “Pray then like this,” Jesus says: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. They kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven …” (Mt 6:9–10).
Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father as the all-knowing and all-powerful creator and governor of the universe. In other words, we are to pray knowing that nothing occurs in creation that escapes God’s notice.
There is no birth nor death, no gain nor loss, no joy nor sorrow of which God remains ignorant. As Jesus says elsewhere: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” No, not one of them; all unfolds within God’s providence. It can’t be otherwise.
Consequently, Jesus assures his disciples: “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt 10:29–31). As creatures, we possess nothing that God fails to count.
This is a consoling truth, but our question still remains: why pray? If God is the all-knowing and all-powerful ruler of the universe—if all unfolds under his watchful eye, and if he knows what we need before we ask—then what good can praying possibly do?
Well, it depends on what we think prayer should do. If we think that praying should change God, then our prayer is indeed useless. We’d sooner yell the bark off a tree than change God’s mind about something. But if we think that praying should change us, then we pray as Jesus taught.
Centuries ago, St. Augustine explained the mystery of Christian prayer to a noblewoman named Proba. A young widow who fled the Sack of Rome (410 AD), Proba wrote to Augustine and asked how she should pray, her life spiralling into ever greater chaos.
Augustine responded that she should pray for a happy life, which the holy bishop described thus: “He is truly happy who has all that he wishes to have, and wishes to have nothing which he ought not to wish.”
When we offer to God all of our desires for a happy life, Augustine explained, over time our offering is purified. As we draw closer to God, and as our wills align to his, we wish more for what he wants to give us and less for what we want to give ourselves. Praying does not change God, therefore; it changes us—in our hearts and in our desires.
“The Lord our God requires us to ask not that thereby our wish may be intimated to Him, for to Him it cannot be unknown,” Augustine explained, “but in order that by prayer there may be exercised in us by supplications that desire by which we may receive what He prepares to bestow.”
In other words, we pray always and in every situation not to alert God of our needs, but so that we might grow in our desire for the good things that God wants to give us for a happy life, leading up to eternal life.
The mystery of Christian prayer as Augustine described it unfolds even in situations of great distress. In moments of trouble or trauma, we might not know how to pray as we ought, asking God simply to remove the cause of our trouble. Augustine granted that this prayer is natural and common. But in those moments, Augustine continued, “we ought to exercise such submission to the will of the Lord our God, that if He does not remove those vexations we do not suppose ourselves to be neglected by Him, but rather, in patient endurance of evil, hope to be made partakers of greater good, for so His strength is perfected in our weakness.”
When troubled, we pray for the removal of our trouble, though acknowledging all the while that the trouble itself may provide a path to some greater good. In order to pray this kind of prayer, we can look to a reliable model: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).
No prayer is useless, therefore. At any given moment, our prayer manifests either a heart aligning to God’s will or a heart already aligned to it. In either case, we pray confidently as creatures of a provident God, who wills that nothing of his ever be lost (Jn 6:39).