Learning to pray with right aim, timing and heart
“Why don’t my prayers work? Why don’t I get what I want from God?” That’s a tough question to answer, especially when the person starts reading Luke 18:35-43, which can be summarized as:
“Jesus says, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man answers, ‘Lord, I want to see!’ Jesus replies, ‘receive your sight.’”
Why can’t all intercessory prayer be answered so simply, clearly and directly? More often than not, our prayer doesn’t work like that. And so we might be tempted to complain: “Lord, I’m not asking for anything evil. I’m not asking for the death of my rival or to be Earth’s tyrant. I’m not asking for anything impossible. I’m only asking for praiseworthy things, such as a good Catholic spouse, or excellence in my studies or peace in my family. Why don’t you treat me like that blind man?”
Questions about apparently unanswered prayer can be the most heartfelt questions, and therefore the most painful. We present ourselves to God in our neediness and vulnerability, and God appears unresponsive or indifferent.
What does it mean if God doesn’t appear timely or clear in response to our prayer requests? If the request is wrong, God says, “No.” We may have set our hearts on something that he does not intend for us, and God in his goodness says, “No.” God will always say no to any request that would separate us from him.
If the timing is wrong, God says, “Slow.” Timing is so important. A good thing at the wrong time is a bad thing. We may be asking for goods that we are not yet ready to receive and care for properly.
If the one who prays is wrong, then God will say, “Grow.” God will always call us to outgrow a divided heart. (The most famous example is from Saint Augustine before his conversion: “Oh Lord—make me chaste—but not just yet!”) Sometimes we are ambivalent about receiving a grace that requires conversion, or we ask to be liberated from a sinful desire that we still love. God can work best in an undivided heart, one that does not draw a line between “This-is-for-me” and “This-is-for-God.” If we pray for grace but don’t really want it, then Saint James says we are unstable and double-minded (that is both wanting and not-wanting) and so we should not expect to receive anything from God, because we have given him no place to put it.
Saint Paul is even more direct, saying in Romans 12:1-2 that we cannot worship well or discern the will of God if we cling to what is unworthy of our Christian calling: “Think of God’s mercy, my brothers, and worship him, I beg you, in a way that is worthy of thinking beings, by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God. Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you, but let your behavior change, modeled by your new mind. This is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do.”
We may sometimes find the divine call to spiritual integrity and growth as a condition of receiving God’s best blessings frustrating, humiliating or infuriating. Would it kill God to just give us what we want?
Yes. Yes it would. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, we humans have been setting our hearts, minds and hands upon what is not God, insisting on idols, toys and pleasures that we think we need or deserve. When we locked ourselves into spiritual death by insisting on what we wanted, regardless of whether it was truly good for us nor not, our only hope of rescue was a divine intervention. Jesus died to break the bonds of our disobedience that we had so pridefully forged ourselves. Only a loving God would call us to maturity and not indulge our every whim. Only an amazing God would give us a second chance at happiness and holiness, bought by the shed Blood of the Son of God.
If the request is right, the timing is right, and we ourselves are right, then God will say, “Yes! Receive your heart’s desire—a heart set on what is best for you. Gladly your Father gives to you!”
When we pray, let’s remember that we are turning to the God who freely chose to make us, save and sanctify us. We are turning to the God who is calling us to glory. If we remember that, then we readily pray over and over, “Jesus, I trust in you.”
When I write next, I will speak of the spiritual power of anger. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.