“Why isn’t God answering my prayers? Am I not praying right?” These are very serious questions and deserve honest answers.
Many people who pray — including those who pray long and hard — ask these questions from time to time, as well they might. Jesus certainly told us to “pray always” (Mt 21:22, Lk 18:1-18, 21:36). He also assured us that anything we ask the Father in his name will be given to us (Mt 18:19, Mk 11:24, Jn 11:22,16:26). And there can be no question about how often and passionately Jesus himself prayed — not only to set for us an example, but because he wanted to.
That last phrase may be the key: Jesus wanted to pray. It was his burning desire to empty his heart and soul to the Father. He always prayed with passion.
What is this passion like? When a person is passionate about something, it is not easy to miss or ignore. Jesus speaks admirably of those who insist that their demands be heard, like the image of the man knocking on his neighbor’s door in the night, who is rewarded for his insistence (Lk 11:5-13). Jesus is telling us God expects us to do the same.
Does that mean that we have to cry or shout to have our prayers answered? Many spiritual writers have weighed in affirmatively on the practice and effectiveness of “wordless” prayer: St. Augustine, for one. People we admire for their holiness were often seen to have wept in prayer. Jesus himself did (Jn 11:35, Heb 5:7-10).
St. Isaac Jogues, whose feast day we recently celebrated, was reported to have shed tears in prayer, leading some men of the Mohawk tribe to wonder about his manly character. In their culture, a man’s character was judged by his ability to withstand pain and even torture without displaying fear or emotion. Eustace Ahasistari, a member of the Mohawk tribe, had to explain (almost humorously) that this is what good French men did when they prayed, or even when they expressed affection for a friend. It was just a “thing” for them.
We all understand that a sheer display of tears and sighing is just as bad as the multiplication of words, which Jesus equates with babble (Mt 6:7). What we are getting at here, however, is the importance of putting passion into our prayer.
Passion not same as “feelings”
Passion and “feelings” are not necessarily the same thing. One can feel strongly about something that is not really very important in the balance of things. Children — and adults acting like children — will often become whiny over the most superficial matters, from ice cream or chocolate deprivation to a dropped call or WiFi connection.
Passion involves desire that comes from the depth of one’s soul. We recognize that God, who knows all things, already knows what we need before we ask for it. Yet, God delights in being asked. It is not that God needs to be informed of our needs, but he himself desires that we really feel the longing for their fulfillment. God wants our hearts to be stirred into flames of desire, so that our love for God may grow in the praying.
We know from experience that, when friends and lovers exchange gifts, it really isn’t so much about the gift itself, but the relationship. It is true that many people put time and deliberation into selecting the perfect gift to express affection; why should we be surprised if God also might choose to take the time to deliver us the grace that we most need at the best time?
I have heard complaints from some that they have been praying so long for something and God seems to be turning a deaf ear. Dare I ask how long, the answer is often something like, “Two weeks.” Enough said.
We ask too little
Let me suggest another flaw in our prayer life that might reflect a lack of the passion that God wants us to pray with: It is not that we ask too much, but that we ask too little. That’s right! Remember, Jesus has told us that everything he has from the Father, he will give us. Do we really believe that?
It seems that James and John, in last Sunday’s Gospel, must have heard Jesus say this many times. They were emboldened to ask him to give them “whatever” they asked for. They asked for first-place seating when he would come into his glory in his Kingdom.
Jesus quickly saw that they were asking for the wrong reasons, that they were looking for status and honor, as the rivaling other disciples were quick to detect, as well. He counseled them to ask with a servant’s humility, as he himself exemplified in his life and death: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:44-45).
The real flaw in the request of James and John — considered a prayer, since it was directed to Jesus — is not that they asked for too much, but too little, and for the wrong reasons. They were asking for two of the list of classic idols that spiritual writers have constantly identified: wealth, pleasure, power and honor. None of these is inherently bad, but if any one of these becomes a goal in itself, it leads to ego-inflation and, ultimately, spiritual death, because all of them have a limited shelf life. All of our trophies gather dust. These temporal goods perish.
Remember: Keep the end in mind
Our goal is heaven. Our hearts are made for an eternity with God. Our prayers should stir up these passions for the one to whom they are directed. Taking the time to sharpen our focus with the ardor of the passionate lover makes our prayer more vibrant and authentic. It brings out the desire God longs to see in us, which cannot help but “remind” him of why he created us: to love and to be loved, forever.
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Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger is the bishop of Albany, NY