Dear Donagh, a passage from Luke's gospel caught my eye recently, the passage about the widow who kept pestering the judge until he gave her justice. Then Jesus said, won't God grant justice to those who call on him? “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will QUICKLY grant justice to them.” Does God keep his promises?!!! James L.
Dear James, it’s a good question, and that passage (Luke 18:1-8) has often raised eyebrows. There is certainly a puzzle here, even within the passage itself. ‘I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them’ (verse 8). So why then do we have to ‘pray always and not lose heart?’ (verse 1). Why do we have to persevere? If God is willing, even eager, to give us what we want, why do we have to keep on asking?
It isn’t about God. There is no reluctance on God's side. Even nature gives you everything it is able to give at the time (including, of course, lots of things you haven’t ordered!). The trees don’t begrudge you fruit or shelter, the fields give you crops, the rivers flow gladly for you…. Likewise our Father in heaven: ‘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).
It isn’t about God, it is about us. I once knew someone who would never accept an invitation until he had been asked twice! He said he wanted to make sure that the invitation wasn’t given out of mere politeness. This probably freed up his diary remarkably, but he was happy to know that he was wanted when he was invited a second time. We wouldn’t want to say that God is being precious when God lets us ask again and again. But there is a parallel all the same. I'm afraid we do often ask God for things out of mere politeness and for the sake of good form. In the ‘Prayers of the Faithful’ at Mass, especially, we slip easily into this. ‘For the poor, the old, the lonely….’ How could we take in such a vast swath of human misery in one smooth phrase? I imagine God simply unable to hear smooth phrases. God listens to the heart, and there is often no echo of heart in the things we pray for.
We don’t really want what we pray for. We want half of it. We want the bit that will make us comfortable. Or we want to be rid of the things that challenge us, the very things we prayed for yesterday, thinking they would make us comfortable. So we have to ask many times before we know what we want, or before we know with our whole being that we want it. Would I go through fire and water for it? Would I die for it? If not, I don’t really want it; I would like it but I don’t want it. It’s the difference between starving and being ready for your supper. If I really wanted it, God would give it immediately, granting that it was God's providence for me. ‘Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you’ (Mark 11:23).
We want half of what we ask for, because we want to remain in control. If we threw ourselves fully behind something we would feel too vulnerable. We don’t want to lose our grip. But faith means losing our grip, entrusting ourselves, not just a few details of our affairs, to God.
Keep the faith, James, and thanks for your question!