People pray in times of stress or in crisis. “There are no atheists on the life raft” was a saying in World War II. Yet prayer is surely more than a last resort, a desperate cry for help when all else has failed. But the truth is that as long as we live on this earth, our constant approach to God will be that of persons in need.
Prayer is not only a call for help. It is first and foremost an acknowledgement that everything we are and everything we have comes from God.
God Knows All But…
Is it not true to say that, since God knows our needs, it is not necessary to ask him. Prayer is not a matter of telling God something he does not know, but rather a way of reminding ourselves of something we so easily forget – that God is God, and we are dependent on him. When we ask God for something, we bring into the open our relationship with him; we knowledge the truth about God and about ourselves. We cannot hide our hearts from God, nor should we try to. Rather, as we accept our brokenness and weaknesses, we make space within our hearts to receive his healing grace.
There is nothing humiliating or demeaning about the prayer of petition. God is our Father and we are never more fully his children then when we turn to him in confident prayer.
God is Present in Our World
Underlying all prayer of petition there must be a firm belief in the Providence of God, a strong awareness that God is very much present and active in this world of ours. This does not mean that God acts wantonly or interferes at random in his own universe. He is the first to respect the laws he himself has made, just as he is the first to honor the freedom and independence he has given us.
But it does mean that God cares for each of us, knows us by name and is always looking to order things creatively for our good; “look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said, “are you not more precious than any of these?” (Matt 6: 26). Also, Teresa of Avila said of God “he knows all things, he can do all things and he loves me.”
Every prayer of petition, then, implies an act of faith in the reality of God’s presence, a presence that is both immediate and active. It is easy enough to see God’s hand in the pleasant things of life. It is not so easy to see it in the more difficult and painful things. And yet “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). St Augustine, reflecting on these words of Paul in the light of his experience, added “yes, even our sins”. God is the infinitely consummate artist who brings good out of evil, beauty out of chaos, and changed Good Friday into Easter Sunday morning.
Many are distressed by the problem of unanswered prayer. They feel somehow that their prayers should have magic power to achieve what they ask. The truth is that God always answers our prayer with an eye on eternity. He sees beyond the passing need to something deeper and greater. Someone has rightly said that God answers every prayer—sometimes the answer is ‘yes,” sometimes it is “no,” sometimes it is “wait.” And it is the waiting, above all, that tests our faith.
In the scriptures there are many examples of unanswered prayers. Moses prayed to enter the promised land and his prayer was not granted. David prayed unavailingly for the life of his child. Paul, too, was refused when he asked to be freed from the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12: 7).
There are many prayers God wants us to answer ourselves! When we say, “thy will be done,” we mean not only by God, but by us as well. Indeed, many of our prayers are already answered before we make them. By keeping God’s commandments and living our Christian faith, we already have the solution to many of our troubles and worries.
Prayer and Action
It is sometimes said that instead of praying for people, we should do something for them. Instead of praying for the hungry, we should feed them; instead of interceding for the sick we should nurse them. But one does not exclude the other, and the God to whom we pray is also the source of all food and health and life. At the same time, genuine prayer is always a spur to action. I can hardly pray with full earnestness for another in need if I am not prepared to do everything I can in a practical way to help. Thomas More, the 16th century English martyr, expressed this truth very beautifully in one of his favorite prayers; “things I pray for, Lord, give me the grace to work for.”
God Knows Best
But in the end, of course, our prayer will be one of gratitude—gratitude that God himself in his wisdom, sorts out all our requests. For the chances are that, as they stood, they could have increased our sorrows rather than our joys.
Prayer is a cornerstone for faith and worthy of in depth understanding. The following links address prayer from different directions and may answer some of the questions you may have regarding your prayer life.
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And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7)
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” (Matt 18:19)
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 2If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matt 21:21-23)
Patterns of Prayer by Eugene McCaffrey