I get this question pretty often so I figured I’d write out my thoughts on it and just send people a link from now on so they leave me alone. This is a long one though so brace yourself. Or not reading it is also fine.
What I’m not Talking About
First, specifying the question. The main reason we pray is to glorify and thank God. As such it is an act of the virtue of justice (under which Aquinas places all of “religion” in general), since God has given us our existence and everything else, and because we cannot repay him (or improve his life in any way since he’s already infinite and perfect), it’s our duty to at least say thank you.
We also pray in order to grow closer to God and love him more. One of the most basic effects of sanctifying grace is allowing us to enjoy, with our human passions, our relationship with God.
In this context, we can also pray for more grace, asking God for mercy, or strength against temptation, or deeper conversion. This is a type of petitionary (“asking for stuff”) prayer that asks for spiritual gifts. Some of what I say below applies to this kind of prayer as well, but when we ask for spiritual gifts, the act of asking alone opens up our hearts. So it makes sense to do this whether or not the problems below apply.
Also unrelated to this question are things like meditation on Scripture, lectio divina, contemplation of the Word of God, or other fancy ways to say “thinking about the Bible.”
The question isn’t about the kinds of prayer above, but about petitionary prayer for some earthly good – asking God for something physical to happen. Healing grandma of cancer, bringing peace to the middle-east, giving you the job you applied for, destroying your enemies, making mom and dad get you that kitten for Christmas. These are things we pray for, and things that it’s definitely okay to pray for, and things the Bible tells us to pray for (it’s even in the Our Father – “give us our daily bread,” and certainly in St. Paul’s letters).
So this post isn’t about whether or not we should ask for earthly things when we pray – that question is settled. If Jesus said to do it, that’s good enough for me.
But there’s a theological puzzle lurking here that people often notice, and that’s what I want to talk about. It’s not just about asking for miracles to happen, though even this is okay to do and certainly God can perform them – though I’d feel pretty embarrassed to ask God to suspend the laws of nature for something petty like the outcome of a sports game.
What’s the problem? Well, what exactly is happening when we ask God for some physical thing? Was God not going to give it to us, and then when he heard our prayer, changed his mind? Did we inform him of something he wasn’t aware of before? Or does God plan to give us things, but enjoy seeing us desperate and begging? Obviously not, to all of the above.
Doing it Wrong
And yet, this is how some of us pray sometimes. We focus on the thing we want really hard, clutch our rosary, and strain our will until a blood vessel explodes in our brain, to make sure that God knows how bad we want it. We pummel him with novena after novena just in case he didn’t hear us the first time. We kneel and fast and suffer so that God feels guilty and realizes he owes us this, after all we’ve done for him (since he apparently eats our pain?).
This is an example of how bad theology really messes up our prayer life, but it’s also an example of how bad personality does too. We shouldn’t even treat other human beings that way, much less God. If you want something from another person, ask for it plainly. If you get it, say thank you. If you don’t, forget it and talk about something else. If some guy tried the stunts I described in the last paragraph to get a girl to date him, the girl should immediately call the police, because she has a stalker.
The Stalker Widow
Speaking of stalkers, let’s talk about the Parable of the Persistent Widow and how you’re wrong about it. Here it is:
And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, `Vindicate me against my adversary.’ For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, `Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)
The title or spoiler Luke gives the parable is “we should pray and not lose heart.” That’s the message. How does the story tell us that message?
On first reading, a lot of us would pick through the cast of characters and come up with something like this:
- The widow is each of us
- The judge is like God, but God is better than the judge
- Therefore, we shouldn’t lose heart and continue to ask God for things
I think this is totally upside-down, and misses the whole point of the parable.
God isn’t just “better than the judge.” God is NOTHING like the judge. The judge is a jackass. He “neither fears God nor regards man.” He is selfish and only does what’s (presumably) right out of his own convenience, only eventually, only after being harassed. He doesn’t seem to have any concern for actual justice. God, as described by Christ, answers SPEEDILY. The judge does not represent God in this parable even by way of contrast.
I think it’s the other way around:
- The widow is God, pursuing each of us at every moment to choose him over his adversary (sin, the devil, the fourth bourbon, skinny jeans, etc.).
- We are the unjust judge, who refuse him due to our selfishness and vanity.
If that’s the case, then how is this parable about “always praying and not losing heart?”
Remember the unjust judge doesn’t have his priorities straight – he doesn’t care about God or human beings in the right way. Always praying and not losing heart doesn’t mean continuing to demand that God gives us the thing we want. That makes him a waiter and us a Karen throwing a hissy fit because our salmon caesar salad didn’t have the dressing on the side. Maybe the parable is about conversion – about transforming our judgments about things, fixing our priorities so that we care less about the salad and more about the Waiter. If we ought always to pray, that means that we ought to want to pray, not just to get something else out of praying. If we ought not to lose heart, and we still lose heart, maybe our heart is in the wrong place.
Isaac of Nineveh
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve changed the subject from “what happens when we pray for things” to “we’re kind of shallow when we pray for things.” I’ll get back to the former question soon, but it’s worth taking time to reflect on how and what we should strive to be praying for.
I say “strive” because again, it’s okay to ask God for physical goods. But “okay” isn’t the same as “best.”
Isaac of Nineveh is a mystical author from my tradition whose writing I’ve only recently come to appreciate, since I generally find “spirituality” a topic that is either extremely difficult or extremely vague or extremely boring. But Isaac has his moments. I think what he says here is important, but I do think it’s incomplete. I’ll try to point out how in the following sections.
In his book On Ascetical Life, in the “Third Discourse,” he discusses petitionary prayer:
28. As one who asks a full measure of dung from a mighty king will not only be despised because of the contemptibility of his petition which reveals his ignorance, but also he insults the king with his foolish petition. Such is the one who asks carnal things of God in prayer.
Translation: God can give us so much more than cars and jobs; he can give us himself. Knowing that and still asking for a car is like asking a king for a nice warm bowl of poop.
30. Do not ask God for anything that even without our request He takes care to give us. He does not withhold these things from his housemates, nor from those who are utterly alien to the knowledge of Him and who do not even know that He exists.
Translation: Though Isaac doesn’t consider it wrong (he can’t since Jesus allows it), he advises not even asking for the physical stuff, since God gives that stuff as he sees fit, whether or not we ask for it. A relationship with God, however, requires us to ask for it with open hearts. He’ll send rain whether we like it or not; he won’t force us to be friends with him.
31. “Do not be a prater like the heathens.” What is this “like the heathens”? The people’s of the earth seek these things of the body. But you do not think, “What will we eat or what will we drink or with what will we be clothed”? Your Father knows that these things are necessary to you, too.
More of the same – connecting different parts of the Gospel. Look up the verses yourself. They’re both in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7ish.
33. That which our Lord commanded concerning daily bread, namely to ask for it in prayer, is a petition which He handed down to mankind in general because of the weakness of its mind. But see what He commands those who are perfect in knowledge and healthy in soul: “Take no thought about food or clothing. If God cares for birds which have no soul, how much more for you. But seek from God the kingdom and righteousness and these things He will give to you over and above.”
Translation: Yes, we’re taught to ask for physical things even by Jesus, but not because it’s the best way to pray. Jesus commanded this kind of prayer because he knows that most of us love stuff more than God, and so a first step in talking to God can legitimately be asking him for stuff. But it’s only a first step that’s meant to lead to just plain old talking to him. Isaac claims that is the intention of Jesus himself.
34. If He delays over your request, in that you seek but you do not readily receive, do not be grieved; for you are not wiser than God. When you wait like this it is either because your way of life does not conform with your request or because the ways of your heart differ from the purpose of your prayer; or because your inner state is like that of a child in comparison with the greatness of the matter.
Translation: When you ask for stuff and don’t get said stuff, it’s probably because you suck or the stuff sucks. Either way calm down.
35. It is not fitting that great things fall readily into our hands, lest the gift of God be undervalued because of the ease of its discovery.
36. Everything which is readily found is also easily lost.
37. Everything which is gained with labor is guarded with vigilance.
Translation: If God immediately gave us everything we wanted, we wouldn’t value the stuff we got, or him. I think the final season of The Good Place illustrates this really well. Among other things.
38. Thirst for Jesus, that He may intoxicate you with his love. Close your eyes to the precious things of the world that you may deserve to have the peace of God reign in your heart.
Translation: The love of Jesus is better than stuff. Ask for that.
$1.99 or 2 for $3
Humility is an absolute prerequisite for any healthy prayer life – not only before God (obviously) but also in relation to others and even ourselves. If we try to compare our prayer life to what we perceive in others as if it’s a competition, or if we’re frustrated we haven’t made the progress we expected to make, we’re missing the point. Friendship isn’t something to be rushed, including friendship with God.
So when Isaac seems to talk against prayer asking for some physical good, that doesn’t mean we should avoid doing it. It only means that, in the long run and even now, we should deepen it and never leave our relationship with God as only asking for things. If your heart desires some earthly good, don’t repress that – let it bring you to God. Yes, we should strive for detachment from earthly goods, but we won’t get there by pretending we’re holier than we really are. That’s an attempted “shortcut” that will only waste our time, because it’s a prideful lie to pretend we’re something we’re not.
That’s not how to be a friend, especially to God. Be yourself, even if that means being a greedy jerk, because that honesty will show you yourself and what you need to improve. Pretending, before the God you face in prayer, that you’re not a greedy jerk, is only an insult to God. You’re not fooling anyone, much less him. You’re only making a fool of yourself.
So if your heart is set on the car, pray for it. Then move on to something else. Then when you get the car you’ll realize it’s just a stupid car, and your prayer for it was the best part of the whole process.
This is a delicate balance – honesty with yourself but a striving for real growth. Pushing to be better without pretending you’re already there. Accepting yourself as you are without being comfortable where you are.
I’m not sure which is more common among those who pray: fake holiness or comfortable worldliness. I suppose it’s not my business which is more common, since both are bad ideas – though the former, I think, is worse. But let me address the latter.
I’d be really curious to see a statistical study on the most popular forms of prayer among Catholics, or among members of all Apostolic Churches. I’d be surprised if Novenas weren’t somewhere near the top of the list.
I think Novenas are great – I even composed one in honor of our Seminary patron. Some are feats of great theology and even poetry. Overall they are meant to foster devotion to God and his saints. Cool.
However, I know I’m not the only priest who’s noticed them treated in a different way, along with other devotions, especially those carrying a “promise” of one kind or another. I’ve noticed many use these prayers almost as witchcraft, a kind of tool to twist God’s arm or to force reality to bend to their wishes. I remember talking to a good friend about the promises supposedly attached to a certain devotion, and raising an eyebrow to how specific they were. In a moment of exaggerated rhetoric, I added to her list that the devotee praying this prayer also gets “Free pizza every other Wednesday.”
I hope that comment is taken in the spirit by which it was spoken. I didn’t mean to disparage the praying of novenas or other devotions. I meant to remind my friend that the point of devotions is devotion, not stuff.
Back to the problem. Let’s be fair – not every petition for a worldly good is shallow. Sometimes it’s not about the new car, but about grandma getting better. This isn’t just some silly thing we’re praying for, even if it is something “in this world.” The prayer is made out of love for another, and even if it’s not entirely for some spiritual thing even for them, it’s not only a good thing, but a very good thing, to want and to pray for.
So (finally) we get to the original question. What exactly happens when we ask for something in prayer? In what sense is a prayer a cause of anything? There must be some sense in which it is, otherwise even Jesus’s command to ask for our daily bread is nothing more than emotional manipulation – a lie to trick us into talking to God. I said earlier that honesty needs to be the foundation of any friendship, especially the friendship with God we call prayer. But that must be true of God as well. If he asks us to pray for things, even if it’s a request for a worldly thing, that exchange can’t be based on a lie.
For this question I’ll refer to Aquinas’s lesser-known but still great Summa, the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, Chapters 95-96.
He sets up the question in this way:
For prayer is not established for the purpose of changing the eternal disposition of providence, since this is impossible, but so that a person may obtain from God the object which he desires.
So while he’s going to argue that prayer does something, one thing it does not do is change God’s mind (I think I’ve beaten that point to death already). But because our desires are often from him, and good, and holy, it is fitting for him who loves us to fulfill what we request through prayer. How exactly does that work though?
It is apparent, then, from the foregoing that the cause of some things that are done by God is prayers and holy desires. But we showed above that divine providence does not exclude other causes; rather, it orders them so that the order which providence has determined within itself may be imposed on things. And thus, secondary causes are not incompatible with providence; instead, they carry out the effect of providence. In this way, then, prayers are efficacious before God, yet they do not destroy the immutable order of divine providence, because this individual request that is granted to a certain petitioner falls under the order of divine providence. So, it is the same thing to say that we should not pray in order to obtain something from God, because the order of His providence is immutable, as to say that we should not walk in order to get to a place, or eat in order to be nourished; all of which are clearly absurd.
Prayers aren’t causes of God, but rather are secondary causes through which God accomplishes his will. The idea of secondary causality is central to Aquinas’s metaphysics of creation, but the basic idea is that when God creates something, he doesn’t create it for no reason or make it inert. Rather, every creature, by the powers God granted it through creation, is able to act through its own nature. So while God is “First Cause” (according to the second of the “Five Ways“), he is not All Causes – other beings are causes as well: “second” to his “First.”
We, and our activities (like prayer), are these kinds of causes. We don’t create out of nothing, and everything we do is within a larger context of God’s activity, and requires his power to accomplish. But we do accomplish. When we bring a sandwich to a hungry person, the existence of our hands, the sandwich, the ability to bring it to someone, and the love in our heart as we do it, are all, at every moment, supplied by God. We didn’t change God’s will by feeding a hungry person with a sandwich; we fulfilled it. He was the First Cause of that meal; we and our peanut butter are secondary causes.
This is how prayer works as a cause; it is not a cause of anything in God, but it is a cause of things in creation. We’re not reminding God or teaching him something he does not know: we aren’t changing his mind. We are offering our prayers as instruments through which he may fulfill that which he already willed from eternity. Our sandwich can fulfill God’s eternal will when we hand it to the hungry person; our prayers can do the same when we pray for him. God causes our prayers, which cause the effects we pray for. And prayers, spiritual instruments commanded by Christ himself, are powerful. Secondary, like everything we do, but powerful. Why wouldn’t they be, if they are spiritual and God himself is Spirit?
Why then does God not answer some of our prayers? That doesn’t seem to happen when it comes to sandwiches. Aquinas agrees with Isaac that the spiritual is superior to the physical, and that union with God should be the point of all we do. With this in mind, Aquinas offers a few possible reasons why God might not answer some prayers:
Now, the thing that is moved is not brought to its end by the mover unless the motion be continued. So, if the movement of desire is not continued by constant prayer, it is not inappropriate for the prayer to fail to receive its expected result. Hence, the Lord says in Luke (18:1) “that we ought always to pray and not to faint”; also, the Apostle says, in 1 Thessalonians (5:17): “Pray without ceasing.”
This would be like making the sandwich but giving up on delivering it to the hungry guy when we see traffic. Prayers are secondary causes, and like many causes, need to be continued to fulfill their purpose – the water won’t boil unless the heat is under it until it does.
Again, we showed that God fulfills in a suitable way the desire of a rational creature, depending on its nearness to Him. But one becomes near to Him through contemplation, devout affection, and humble but firm intention. So, the prayer which does not approach God in this way is not capable of being heard by God. Hence, it is said in the Psalm (101:18): “He has had regard to the prayer of the humble”; and in James (1:6): “Let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.”
This is like asking an enemy for a favor. The primary point of prayer is friendship with God. If we don’t have that first, there’s no reason to expect we’d get the secondary stuff.
However, it happens at times that a person is refused because of friendship a petition which he asks of a friend, since he knows that it is harmful to him, or that the opposite is more helpful to him. Thus, a physician may deny sometimes the request of a sick person, having in mind that it is not beneficial to him in the recovery of his health. Consequently, since we showed that God, because of the love which He has for the rational creature, satisfies his desires when they are presented to Him through prayer, it is no cause for astonishment if at times He does not grant the petition, even of those whom He especially loves, in order to provide something that is more helpful for the salvation of the petitioner. For this reason, He did not withdraw the sting of the flesh from Paul, though he asked it thrice, for God foresaw that it was helpful to him for the preservation of humility, as is related in 2 Corinthians (12:7-9). Hence, the Lord says to certain people, in Matthew (20:22): “You do not know what you ask”; and it is said in Romans (8:26): “For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought.” For this reason, Augustine says in his letter to Paulinus and Therasia: “The Lord is good, for He often does not grant what we desire, so that He may give us what we desire even more.”
Sometimes the thing we want isn’t the thing we need. And since God is a true friend, he doesn’t give us everything; only the things that are truly good for us.
This is easier to understand after the fact. It’s impossible to know what will help us or harm us in the long run in any absolute way. We can guess or hope, but there are things out of our control and beyond the scope of our knowledge. I remember counseling young people praying and begging God to have that guy or girl notice or go out with them. This is a really common source of frustration and sadness, and the fact is that it’s always painful to not get what we want. This can even turn into anger against God, or rejection of him entirely, if we want the thing more than him. It’s very much the opposite of Christ’s prayer, ending “not as I will, but as you will,” or even the Our Father, “thy will be done.”
But with experience we often discover that the thing (or person) we were convinced was absolutely essential to any future happiness we could ever have wasn’t that essential at all. All flesh is grass; plenty of fish in the sea; all men are pigs; Socrates is mortal; etc. Maybe the things we think we need aren’t needs so much as wants, or in the worst cases, addictions.
That still leaves grandma though, and with her the issues of suffering and mortality in general. Why God doesn’t answer some prayers for healing or health or continued life, is not a question I will venture to answer. I know that he created us passible and mortal, and that pain and death await all of us. I don’t know whether I’d have done the same, but I do know I’m a lot dumber than God.
Humbly asking for grandma to get better is a beautiful and loving thing to do, and I pray that God answers those prayers when you pray them. But demanding an exception to rule of mortality for our loved ones because we really really want it doesn’t seem to be within the limits of fairness, since every moment of life was already a free gift from him, and the life of the soul does not end at death anyway. Grandma’s sickness isn’t a shallow thing to pray about. But everyone dies, and this lousy place is not our final destination.
It seems I’ve bumped into the Problem of Evil, which is an entirely different question, and one which I already wrote about in this book (which I recently sent to M.C. Hammer and hope he got). But understanding the point of prayer can help us understand the point of life itself, and which things are more and less important in the big picture, and that can help us understand the problem of evil.
Since this post isn’t already WAY too long, I’ll conclude with a selection from one of Mar Narsai’s homilies, used in the Chaldean Church during Wednesday of Ba’utha:
Be not, O Lord, like sons of men, for you are God,
and not like man, who cannot save, for you save us.
And if our sins have prevailed more than all ages,
may you forgive due to your Name on which we call.
If our vices have made the air an ugly hue,
may you not show an angry face unfit for you.
If our evil has withheld us in our malice,
change not, O Lord, your gracious Name, which changes not.
You are all Good, you are all Just, and hate evil;
neither can your Goodness nor your Justice be weighed.
No one can know how to call your Name with fairness;
all names are small before the greatness of your Name.
If we say “Kind,” your Justice thunders on the earth;
If we say “Just,” heaven and earth fill with mercies.
If “Hidden,” then your works are unveiled before us;
but if “Unveiled,” none among us can see your Face.
If we say “Hearing,” you hear us before we call,
“Forgiving One,” your Love precedes us and our sins.
We cannot know how to pray nor how to praise you;
we fear to speak words that may be unfit for you.
How can we pray to one who has no need of us?
And how can we praise him who is eternally?
If he is praised, does he then increase in glory?
And if he does, is he made perfect by our praise?
If one blasphemes, does this detract from his glory?
If he is hallowed, does he gain it through our mouths?
If angered, was the shame of man hidden from him?
And if appeased, did we show him how to forgive?
If he sees something in remorse after a time,
did time stop him from knowing what he did not know?
If he did not know (blasphemy to even say it),
how could he gain knowledge of his handiwork?
No, earthly ones, do not think as with earthly things;
there is nothing in Existence lacking in him.
All creatures’ name is a preaching of his Essence,
and as he is, his knowledge is all within him.
He is before all else, and he is what he is,
and there is nothing lacking him, in all of time.
Thus should a product think of its own Maker;
thus is it right for all mankind to repay him:
We owe a debt of love to him who made us all,
come, let us try to pay a small part of so much.
He does not need our repayment, like one needy,
he makes pretexts that we may be enriched by him.
He has a treasure, life unending, in himself;
he longs to give of it to his adopted sons.
He called us sons through the inheritance of Jesus,
because of this, he disciplines us lovingly.
Let us therefore endure the chastisements of God,
and never become weary of hunger and pain.
If the name “sons” truly does apply unto us,
let us be sure our discipline is for our good.
Let us accept our pains without discouragement,
and let us face life’s struggles without murmoring.
For this alone do we ask of him when troubled:
do not, O Lord, repay according to our deeds.