Fr. Donagh, you have an excellent web-site. I haven't seen any better on the Internet. Jesus said: "Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will grant you." He also said: "Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened for you." Why, then, do we pray for so many good things, and rarely is our prayer answered. I believe this is the main reason why so many of us don't pray much. God is not keeping his promises. What can you say about this?
I have another question, but I will keep it for another time.
Dear Leo, thanks very much for your words of encouragement, and for asking such a fundamental question. I'm sorry: somehow I lost your email address after I copied your question, and so I was unable to send you a personal reply as I had promised.
Here are a few ideas that I hope may be of some help.
In the 19th century a man named Francis Galton suggested that prayer of petition should be put to the test: that one half of England should pray for rain and then compare the rainfall with the other half.
He was not in fact the first in the world to apply the experimental method to this subject. In the Book of Judges, Gideon said to God: ‘In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said….’ Gideon had the mind of a true experimentalist: the following night he turned his experiment back to front to test God a second time: ‘Do not let your anger burn against me, let me speak one more time; let me, please, make trial with the fleece just once more; let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.’ (Judges 6:36, 39)
We know by some instinct that all this is nonsense. Prayer isn’t simply a way of getting what you want, and if you treated it as such it would turn out to be a pretty unreliable way.
There are many people who, in reacting to the crudity of this attitude, go to the opposite extreme of never asking God for anything - while having no difficulty with prayer of praise, thanks, and so on. There must be a Christian attitude to prayer of petition that avoids these mistakes.
First of all, if it makes sense to thank God for something, it must also make sense to ask God for it. But if we ask with both eyes on the goods and no eye for God, we are only acting the beggar. Prayer is not a cheap way of getting what we want; it is a way of relating with childlike frankness to the Father who knows and loves us intimately. ‘Why, every hair on your head has been counted’ (Luke 12:7). A beggar doesn’t see you at all; he has eyes only for the goods. God does not want us to be beggars, but beloved sons and daughters.
One of the most precious images of prayer that Christians have is the Gethsemane scene. Jesus went there in inner turmoil and asked the Father to let him escape impending torture and death. The astonishing calm, the dignity and trust in his Father that he showed during his trial that night and at his execution the next day, were surely the Father’s answer to his prayer.
God doesn’t always give us the very thing we ask for; but we trust, then, that God is giving us better. An enlightened parent doesn’t give a child everything he or she asks for. A cut-throat razor, for example, might seem a great toy to a young child. Some of the things we set our hearts on may be just as dangerous and harmful to us, for all we know. But even in the case of things that are not harmful, wise parents don’t always comply with a child’s every wish. Their job is to rear the child, as best they can, into a loving and caring person. If they just followed the child around, satisfying his or her every whim, the child would learn to see them only as providers, not as wisdom figures. And they would be training the child to see the world as a kind of shop-window where everything could be had for the asking. The child would never learn anything about him or herself, or the parents, or the world. God educates our desires as we ask for what we need, or think we need. But God cannot do that if we stop asking. ‘If you who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ (Matthew 7:11). Luke’s gospel has a variation on this: ‘…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (11:13). What God ultimately wants to give us is the Holy Spirit, that is, God's own life. Other things are given us in relation to this.
John’s gospel uses a telling phrase: asking ‘in my name’. ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name,’ said Jesus, ‘so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it’ (14:13,14). ‘Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete’ (16:24). In the Scriptures, ‘name’ means more than a label, it means ‘presence’. There are lots of things we could not ask in the presence of Jesus. That shows that we have good breeding, and that we really are being educated by God.
I'm looking forward to your next question, Leo!