Today and for the next two Sundays we are going to talk about prayer. Here’s what we will do today. We will explain how to understand what is going on when God doesn’t answer our prayers. Then we will look at what to do in such circumstances, a theme that we will continue to unfold in the coming weeks.
All of us have experiences of apparently unanswered prayers. We pray and we pray and we pray, pouring our hearts out to God and…nothing. Yet, Jesus tells us, “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” I don’t know about you, but this statement certainly seems to me like a promise that God will answer our prayers indefectibly. Sometimes, people can give up believing in God in any meaningful sense because of an experience of praying for something with all their heart and opening themselves up to God only to experience rejection. Other times, we continue to go through the motions of believing after an experience of God not coming through for us, but our hearts are not in it.
Why does God not always answer our prayers the way that we would like?
While there are many different reasons, three of the most important reasons that God does not answer our prayers in the way that we would like are that 1) we are in sin, 2) we are asking for something that would not be good for us and 3) we are asking for a good thing that we are not yet ready to receive. Let’s walk through these three dead ends.
One reason God does not give us the thing for which we ask is that we are living sinful lives. In 1 Peter 3:12, we read, “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” In other words, God does not generally give people living a lifestyle permeated by sin their deepest desires because these desires are sinful.
Let’s think about this reality. God wants to give us good things. He withholds blessings from those who are living sinful lives in order to avoid enabling us to slip deeper and deeper into misery without recognizing it. Imagine a drug dealer who prays that God keep him safe while he lives a life that takes away the innocence of young people and involves killing those who get in his way. We would find it difficult to imagine that a good God should bless such a man. Why? Giving a drug dealer exactly what his prayers request would mean that he would only sink deeper and deeper into a lifestyle that hurts himself and others.
Another reason is that we are asking for the wrong thing. We read in 1 John 5:14 that “this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will, He hears us.” In this case, it could be that a person praying for something is living a very holy life. Perhaps she even goes to confession once a month, comes to Mass every Sunday, prays daily and is generous in loving those God has given her to love. Yet, if God is calling her to become a cloistered nun, it would be a cruel thing for Him to answer her prayer that she meet the man of her dreams. Rather, God does not answer her prayers because He is a merciful God Who has something better that He wants to give her.
A third reason is that we are asking for the right thing but are not yet ready to receive it with the proper motivation. Thus Saint James explains in chapter 4, verse 3 of his epistle that “you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Maybe God wants us to get a better job–one that has a higher salary, greater prestige and more personal fulfillment. Yet, when God looks into our hearts as they are, He sees that the greater prestige of the job He wants to give us would make us prideful, that having more money would make us greedy and that feeling more fulfilled would keep us away from the confessional. Put simply, having the better job would bring us several steps closer to hell. In such circumstances, God often waits until we are ready to use the blessing that He desires to give us well before giving it to us.
We approach prayer, which for most of us means by default the prayer of petition, with the idea that our prayers can change God. We need to be very careful about trying to enclose the infinite God in our finite heads by thinking in this way. We will either end up worshiping a false god of our own making, or even worse, trying to fit the Infinite Being into a finite space and that will make our heads explode!
We ought not to pray thinking that we can change God. In fact, the reverse bears much more resemblance to the truth. Real prayer changes us, not God. God knows what we need far better than we ever could.
I often hear parents say, “I have been praying for years that my adult child return to confession and the Mass, but nothing seems to happen.” Who can deny that asking for these things for a child is a good thing? Rather than getting mad at God that He has not overpowered the free will of the people for whom we are praying, we would do well to provide a wider context for such petitionary prayers. When God does not give us what we want, He wants to give us something better.
The spiritual tradition speaks of four different kinds of prayer. In the English language there is a handy acronym for these that comes from the word ACTS. A stands for adoration. C stands for contrition. T stands for Thanksgiving. And S stands for supplication. By supplication, we mean the kind of prayer towards which most people default, asking God for things. We have been discussing this kind of prayer at length. Let’s look at the other three: Adoration, Contrition and Thanksgiving. Don’t freak out though, we are only going to look at Thanksgiving today and we will save the other two for the next two weeks.
How many of us here can struggle with negativity? I know that I can. In Randolph and western Darke counties change in recent decades has not been for the better. For us, it can seem like the fix is in and that things are destined only to get worse and worse and that God has abandoned us. What should we do?
One of the very effective ways that I have found to confront this tendency that is in me to look always on the dark side of things has been through prayers of thanksgiving. Once during a particularly difficult time in my life five and a half years ago, a friend of mine encouraged me to put 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 into practice. What does 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 say?
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Let’s break those three verses down, because they give us an excellent vision of how to pray a prayer of Thanksgiving. Rejoice always. What Paul is talking about here has more to do with an act of the will than a feeling. We decide, with God’s help, to look on the bright side of things. After making that decision, how we feel begins to change.
But how do we look on the bright side of things when life stinks? Pray without ceasing. We cannot rejoice always on our own steam. We need to ask for God’s help in prayer. Give thanks in all circumstances. All circumstances mean all circumstances. If someone insults us or threatens us walking down the street, we give thanks. I will be the first to admit that practicing this kind of praise does not come naturally.
One very helpful practice is a rosary of praise. It is very simple and takes less than ten minutes. We take rosary beads and name out loud something for which are thankful on each bead. We need not pray any Hail Marys or Our Fathers. All we need to do is to name things for which we are thankful or things for which we want to be thankful. We can name obvious things like the beautiful weather, but we should also give thanks for Crosses. When we say out loud, “Jesus, I am thankful for the fact that someone told me I was full of it earlier today,” we open a door to the Holy Spirit to mold our hearts so that we may have thankful dispositions.
So let’s recapitulate where we have been and where are going. We started by talking about unanswered prayers. We learned from the Bible that God may not be giving us what we want because 1) we are living in sin 2) we are asking for something that would not be good for us and 3) we are not ready to receive the good thing that God wants to give us. From there, we introduced three paths forward, prayers of adoration, contrition and thanksgiving. We talked about thanksgiving and how to learn to give thanks to God in all circumstances through a rosary of praise. Let’s give that a try at least once this week. Next week we will look at the C in ACTS, prayer of contrition.