Friday, July 22, 2016

What's the Point of Prayer?

SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)

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What is the point of prayer?  What are we trying to accomplish when we pray?  I would venture that the most common form of prayer is petition. The very word means "to ask."  "I pray thee" in Shakespeare's English means, "I ask you."

Very often when we pray to God we ask for things.  Help me pass this exam.  Help me to find a boyfriend/girlfriend.  Please give me a good job when I graduate.  Please heal grandma's cancer.

We want God to give us what we want.  We want Him to do this thing for us that we desire.  Sometimes we even try bargaining with God -- "God, if you fix this problem, I promise I'll never _____ again!"

Now that sounds silly when you think about it.  Who are we to change God's mind about anything?  God is all-knowing.  God is all-powerful.  God is author of Creation. What makes us think that we could change His mind on our behalf about anything?

But isn't that just what Abraham does in our first reading this Sunday?  God is going to destroy the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sinfulness of their inhabitants.  But Abraham prays to God and seemingly convinces God to spare the towns.  Didn't Abraham just change God's mind?

Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that "everyone who asks, receives" (Lk 11:10).  Elsewhere Jesus says that if any two agree on what they ask for, God will do it (Mt 18:19).  People can and do read verses like this and mistakenly presume that prayer is about convincing God to do what you want Him to do for you.  Prayer is about manipulating God's will.  It's about changing God's mind.

But that would be a gross misreading of the sacred scriptures.  It is bad theology.  And it can lead to a loss of faith.  What if I pray to pass my exam, but I fail (because why bother studying, if God is listening to my prayer)?  What if I ask God to heal grandma's cancer, and she dies?  Did God not hear my prayer?  If two Christians agree to pray for world peace and it doesn't result in an immediate cessation of all war, does that mean Jesus lied to us?  Is God just a fairy tale?

Prayer is not about changing God's mind or conforming His will to our wishes.  Prayer is ultimately about changing ourselves, conforming our will to correspond to the mind of God.

When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, He gives them the example of the Lord's prayer.  He teaches us to pray for the coming of God's kingdom.  He teaches us to pray that God's will be done.  And He teaches us to pray for their daily bread -- to ask God for the good things we need each day.

Jesus says, "What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?  If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"

Jesus is talking about fish, eggs, and the Holy Spirit -- all good things.  But what if a child asks for a snake or a scorpion?  What good father would give his child poison, even when that child asks for it.  In his youthful ignorance, the child may sincerely believe the poison to be a good thing, and may be mad at his father for saying no.  But a loving father will say no.

So if God already knows what is good for us, why bother to pray at all?  This question still presumes that prayer is about convincing God to give us things.  We don't pray to change God, we pray to change ourselves.  We pray because it is good for us.  Prayer helps us to foster the right sort of attitude about the gifts God gives us, helps us to recognize them as gifts, and to be thankful for them.  Prayer helps us to learn to seek the good, to seek out God's will, and to learn to desire that which He desires for us.  Prayer helps us learn to want and ask for eggs and not scorpions.

If we conform our will to God's, so that we desire what Jesus desires for us, then we will receive everything we ask for in prayer.  Because we will have learned to ask for and to receive humbly everything God wills for our good.  This is why we pray in the Lord's prayer, "Thy will be done."

This is what we see going on with Abraham in our first reading.  Abraham doesn't "change God's mind," even though that is what a surface reading looks like.  What Abraham asks for is something God is already desirous to give -- he asks for mercy.   The lesson learned in this reading is not learned by God.  The lesson is learned by Abraham and by us.  We learn that God desires mercy and repentance, not condemnation.  We learn that God wants us to intercede for mercy toward others.

Don't be afraid to pray for help with that exam, for guidance in your relationships, and for loved ones who are ill or suffering.  Bring your needs and concerns to God in prayer.  But pray always that God's will be done.  Pray for the grace to desire what God desires.  And accept with thanksgiving the way and manner in which God answers your prayers, which can so often be a mystery to us.

Pray with a mind open to receive God's wisdom, and a heart open to receive His love.  Pray intentionally each day with the purpose of being formed in the image of Christ.

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