“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
But. What about when it doesn’t seem to work? As I have grown spiritually I find I wrestle with the idea of how God answers prayer. Jesus makes it seem quite cut and dried here, doesn’t he? I’m finding it’s much murkier than this. What happens when we pray for someone or something? Are we trying to change God’s mind about it? Does it result in a manipulation or intervention by God? Or does it do something in us? I admit, this all seems heavy for a hot summer day, but here I am…maybe we can ponder it together?
It seems especially hard when people I love are struggling in some area of life. I think I know what would be best and what to pray for, but what about when it doesn’t happen? What was the good of praying for them? Did I not pray well enough? Or is the answer somewhere beyond my solution? It is wrong to pray too specifically?
I look to scripture and see some helpful examples. First, I see Jesus’ mother, Mary in the Gospel of John, during the wedding feast at Cana. She went to Jesus and simply stated the concern to him. “They have no wine.” (John 2:3) If she got more specific than that it didn’t make it into the Gospel. She just stated the problem and then directed the workers to do whatever Jesus asked them to do. I seem more inclined to share my own ideas about how things should be when I pray for stuff. But simply stating my concern leaves it more open for God to surprise me; after all, I may have a very limited view of what would be best.
A different example is the character Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” I love his honest communication with God: “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?” Tevye didn’t hesitate to share his suggestions of how things could be easier for him. Does God mind his suggestions? I picture God singing along with him, truly, it’s a very catchy tune.
Then, there is Jesus, a wonderful model of prayer, so often spending quiet time with his Abba. When he is asked by the disciples how to pray he gives them the Lord’s Prayer which diplomatically says, “Thy Kingdom come…” (Luke 11:2-4) leaving the solution up to God. Even at his most desperate hour in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus submits to God’s will and not his own (Matthew 26:39). Embracing God’s Kingdom means letting my Kingdom go, and that can be so hard! I think God still wants to hear my ideas of how things should go, I just may need to be more flexible and willing to be surprised by God. Sharing my ideas with God is relational and God wants us to be in relationship!
I turned to my favorite spiritual writers and found wonderful input from Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, who says that our prayer isn’t to change God as much as it is to transform or change us. Maybe prayer helps us to see with God’s eyes of love, not so much for this or that specific outcome to happen. I do feel more aligned with God when I quiet myself to pray. I take a couple of deep breaths and feel a sense of calm on the inside. That may not be changing the situation, but it’s gathering my thoughts and setting them before God. I am learning that prayer may really be an inside job…whether or not it changes an external situation, it affects me–on the inside.
Another wisdom writer Fr. James Martin, SJ, has written a lovely book on prayer called, “Learning to Pray.” It’s thorough and indexed and nearly 400 pages long and yet he says,
“In the end, why some prayers seem answered and others don’t is a mystery. To me, this is the most honest response and the one that I rely on most. God’s ways are far beyond our ways.”
Fr. Martin stresses that he believes God hears us, helps us and loves us. The rest may be mystery.
Pastor Paul said a wonderful thing the other day in a sermon, “I do not pray to get the answers I want, but I pray to become part of what God wants.” That was helpful to hear because the answers I think I want may be so limited in the overall scheme of things. My prayers for others can be for God to use me however possible to bring love and good to the lives of those I pray for. A friend from my book club gave me another bit of wisdom when she said she prays less for specific things to happen and more for the strength to cope with whatever does happen. That makes a lot of sense to me. Difficult things happen to everyone and it seems right to pray for strength and courage for people struggling, even as we offer whatever tangible support to them we can.
Finally, I think our prayer connects us to the greater community. When we pray for others, we connect with their suffering and struggles, stepping out of ourselves. When we pray for the people in Miami suffering the terrible condo collapse we connect with people who may be strangers to us, but, through prayer, we can share a bit in their pain. We may feel helpless to change the circumstances or do anything to physically help, but we can pray and connect with their broken hearts. And that brings us closer to God.