Friday, August 12, 2011

Unanswered prayers and unwanted gifts


This is a difficult post for me to write because it deals with prayer, and prayer is the least consistent aspect of my spiritual life.

Then why write about it? Because I read Dr. Randall Smith’s excellent comments on the intercessory prayers of the faithful that take place at the end of the Liturgy of the Word in a Catholic Mass. For the substance of his remarks, please follow the link; suffice it to say that many of these “intentions” aren’t directed at God so much as they are at the faithful, and that many of these “intentions” are prayed for only so long as they’re hot news items.

Among the combox entries was one from “Grump”, who was apparently trying to dig a rabbit hole:

As one whose prayers have never gotten higher than the ceiling in 40+ years of making requests and asking for help for myself and others, I am reminded by [sic] Kierkegaard’s comment about prayer: “Prayer doesn’t change God, but it changes us.” Which in my case is true since it has made me an unbeliever.
When Jesus said, “Ask anything in my name and it shall be done” [Jn 14:13-14]. I took Him at His word. I’m still waiting for Him to keep it.

So what do we say to that?


Patrick Coffin, the gifted host of the EWTN radio show Catholic Answers Live, often says, “Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.” Like all such apothegms, it’s a bit of an exaggeration; Coffin simply means that the average nonbeliever tends to treat the Bible in a manner similar to certain fundamentalists. That is, he will take isolated “proof text” statements and treat them with a literalism that has little to no respect for the genre, the historical and social context, the apostolic tradition or the rest of Scripture.

Setting aside for the argument other problems Scripture poses for nonbelievers, let’s make our first point first: Proof texts are vulnerable to out-of-context fallacies. “Grump” refers to a sentence or two Jesus spoke in the middle of an extensive discourse near the end of his earthly ministry. It seems simple enough to understand … but then, so does E = mc2. But just as you can’t fully appreciate the formula without a solid background in physics, you can’t fully understand Jesus’ statement outside the context of everything else he taught about God, himself, and prayer.

Let’s start with Jesus’ basic lesson in prayer:

“And in 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. Pray then like this:
     “Our Father who art in heaven,
     Hallowed be thy name.
     Thy kingdom come.
     Thy will be done,
     On earth as it is in heaven.
     Give us this day our daily bread;
     And forgive us our debts,
     As we also have forgiven our debtors;
     And lead us not into temptation,
     But deliver us from evil.
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:7-15; cf. Lk 11:2-4)

The hardest words to appreciate in this prayer are in the third request: “Thy will be done.”

Our Father knows what we need before we ask; indeed, we are counted above the ravens, the grass, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. For this reason, we’re told not to worry about food, drink, clothing or shelter, that we can’t add even a cubit to the span of our years by fretting about it. If we who are evil know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will God give us to those who ask Him?

And yet, we are to love, bless and pray for those who mistreat us, for “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:44-45). Those who don’t take up their cross and follow after Jesus aren’t worthy of him (Mt 10:38). According to St. Paul, we are heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17).

Where’s the disconnect? It lies in our relationship with God: “For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:32-33). Our primary relationship with God is not as a customer with a vending machine but as a creature with his Creator. Everything we have from God is a gift, for God is under no onus or obligation to give us anything.

Stacy Trasancos reminds us:

In the modern self-focused mentality of many people, a gift is only special if it puffs up the self or elevates the self’s status. Consider the dismal attitudes towards Christmas or birthday presents. Children are taught to ask for, even demand, what they want rather than to gratefully receive what they are given. That mentality feeds grown-up greedy vices such as over-spending (US economy), behaving destructively in public (rioting and looting) and even disrespecting the lives of fellow human beings (war, euthanasia, abortion). Just tell some poor lost “pro-choice” soul that children are gifts. What do they say to that? They say children are not gifts if they are not wanted.

Both Jesus and St. Paul use a distinction we don’t often think of, a distinction common to first-century Jewish thought, between “flesh (and blood)” and “spirit” — that is, between man as a purely material creature and man as a spiritual creature akin to the angels. Jesus’ message is dedicated to the development of man as spirit because it’s in our spiritual mode that we’re most cut off not only from God but from knowledge of our authentic material needs.

The point of the distinction is not to say, as the Gnostics held, that man’s material nature is bad, but rather to say that excessive regard for physical needs without concern for God’s will leads to abuse of both ourselves and others. We are hungry, thirsty or poor; does that justify theft? We are possessed with the urge to mate; does that justify rape, fornication or adultery? We are sometimes angry or fearful; does that justify battery or murder?

Nor does satisfying those needs necessarily lead to happiness or spiritual growth. Jesus’ remark about it being easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than getting a rich man into heaven reminds us that material wealth too often results from over-concern with material things. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:19-21).


Let’s put the statement back into context:

Philip said to [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:8-14; emphasis mine).

Once we place the quote in context, it isn’t quite the open-ended, unconditional promise it appears to be in isolation. Rather, it’s a promise of assistance in carrying out the Father’s will, to the glory of His name — a promise of miraculous healings, of raisings of the dead, of multitudes fed from scant supplies … a promise fulfilled many times through the generations. But it requires us not only to have faith in Christ but to remove our egos from the equation.

So the purpose of prayer isn’t to beg wealth, fame, power or health from God but to know His will, to enter into a deeper relationship with Him. Indeed, using prayer as a magic lamp to compel particular gifts from God is precisely the wrong approach, as if we were to say to God, “My will be done”. God knows how to give good things (Mt 7:11; Lk 11:13), but we don’t know how to pray as we ought (Rom 8:26).

It’s within that deeper relationship that all things become possible, for the person truly seeking the kingdom knows what to ask for, because his relationship with God is well-ordered: he no longer rebels; he no longer acts as God’s equal; but he submits himself to God as a good servant submits himself to his master; his trust in the Lord is absolute.

One final thought in this very long post: If we take as given that God knows what we need before we do, and that what we receive is according to His will, two ideas should present themselves. First, sometimes the answer to our prayer will be “no”, which is what we really mean when we speak of “unanswered prayers”. Second, God will occasionally give us gifts we don’t want, gifts we have difficulty recognizing as such, but which will turn out to be better for us spiritually than what we wanted.

And with that thought, here’s a little Garth Brooks: