On humility in prayer

101013I, perhaps like you, have to see folks I love and care about through some difficult periods in their life. One neighbor and parishioner just lost her eight year old daughter to cancer. A number of parishioners are seeking work and praying daily for it, but no work offers seem forth-coming. Still others cry out for the alleviation of any number of different crosses. I too have lots of things for which I pray, and sometimes I get discouraged or even angry when God seems to say, “no” or, “wait.”
One thing I have surely learned about true prayer, and that it is, I have to be humble, very humble. The Scriptures say, we do not know how to pray as we ought (Romans 8:26). Many other translations of this text say even more emphatically: We do not know what we ought to pray for. Yes, it is true, and yet we are often so sure of what is best for us, or best for others. But what we find the desirable outcome is not necessarily the best outcome. And this insight requires of us great humility. We see so little and understand even less. When we ask for some outcome, and it is not wrong to do so, we need to ask humbly. God alone knows the best answer and when to answer. This is humility.
There is an old teaching that basically goes: Many think of prayer as trying to get God to do your will. But true prayer is trying to understand what God’s will is and do it. I heard and African American preacher put it this way:
You got a lotta people that talk about naming and claiming, and calling and hauling…But there’s just something about saying, “THY will be done!” that we’ve forgot.
It’s not wrong to ask. The Book of James says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). But we do need to ask with great humility because, truth be told, we don’t really know what is best. James and John came to Jesus one day seeking high positions in the new administration (Kingdom). Jesus said to them, You don’t know what you are asking (Mk 10:38). And the truth is, we don’t.
So ask, but ask humbly.
St. Augustine writes beautifully on this matter in his letter to Proba:
Paul himself was not exempt from such ignorance….To prevent him from becoming puffed-up over the greatness of the revelations that had been given to him, he was given….a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him, he asked the Lord three times to take it away from him…..even such a great saint’s prayer had to be refused: My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)
So when we are suffering afflictions that might be doing us either good or harm, [we ought to remember that] we do not to know how to pray as we ought. [B]ecause they are hard to endure and painful, because they are contrary to our nature (which is weak) we, like all mankind, pray to have our afflictions taken from us. [But], we owe this much respect to the Lord our God, that if he does not take our afflictions away, we should not consider ourselves ignored and neglected. But [rather, we] should hope to gain some greater good through the patient acceptance of suffering. For my power is at its best in weakness.
These words are written so that we should not be proud of ourselves…. when we ask for something it would be better for us not to get; and also that we should not become utterly dejected if we are not given what we ask for, despairing of God’s mercy towards us. [I]t might be that what we have been asking for could have brought us some still greater affliction, or it could completely ruin us through the corrupting influence of prosperity. In such cases, it is clear that we cannot know how to pray as we ought.
Hence if anything happens contrary to our prayer [request], we ought to bear the disappointment patiently, give thanks to God, and be sure that it was better for God’s will to be done than our own.
The Mediator himself has given us an example of this. When he had prayed, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by, he transformed the human will that was in him because he had assumed human nature and added: Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it. Thus, truly, By the obedience of one man many have been made righteous. (St Augustine Letter to Proba (Ep 130 14.25ff)
This song reminds us that the answer to our prayers is often caught up in the paradox of the cross:

24 Replies to “On humility in prayer”

  1. There is a sentence, attributed to Theresa of Avila, which says:

    “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.”

  2. And yet, yesterday’s gospel was telling us to ask and we shall receive, knock and it will be opened. The points were made that no father would hand his son a stone if he asked for bread or hand him a snake if he asked for fish! Persistence will make the friend get out of bed and give his friend the loaves of bread which were being asked of him.
    It is indeed hard at times to take God at His word when He seems to turn a deaf ear to prayers of pleading for work.

    1. I’ve often had similar thoughts, JohnR, and I was struck just now with Jesus’s words: “no father would hand his son a stone if he asked for bread” because what is implicit is that “nor would he hand his son a stone if he asked for a stone instead of bread.”

    2. JohnR, may I suggest that you look at crowdsource jobs on the Internet. About a year and a half ago, I saw an advertisement for Article One Partners. This web based company employs crowdsourcing to perform patent research. I am a member and I have gotten paid over $8000. I work part time on it but, I know of others who work on it full time and get paid very well (they can make a living at it). I do the work at home, in my spare time, whenever I want. I can pick and choose my studies. Please look at their website (just Google Article One Partners) and study the educational materials they have and see if you would be interested in this sort of work. It worked for me and gave me a sense of worth that I was doing some good and earning some money. Also check out other crowdsource opportunities on the Web. This seems to be the new paradigm for work these days. I’ll pray that God gives you the Best outcome for your prayers.

  3. I’m reminded of this story:

    There is a Chinese story of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

    Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

    Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off. Now was that good luck or bad luck?
    Who knows?

    Everything that seems on the surface to be an evil may be a good in disguise. And everything that seems good on the surface may really be an evil. So we are wise when we leave it to God to decide what is good fortune and what is misfortune, and thank him that all things turn out for good with those who love him.

    Author Unknown

  4. I always try to remember to end my prayers – “Your Will be done my Lord”……God gave me a mission as a little girl to take care of my parents and I answered Him – You better help me I can’t do this by myself! I was only 5 so I guess I got away w/answering that way but He gave me the gravity of what was going to happen – they both ending up at different times – having cancer. I thought during that time I was falling apart but He (I was away from the Church and sacraments) gave me refreshment (grace) in my soul and let me know when my mom was dying that it was a gift that He gave me to carry the cross and that being obedient to what He wants you to do leads to inner joy – if He did not give me the gift of the Cross I would not be the person I am today. He can do wonders in your life if you ask Him for guidance on how to serve Him in this life and it may seem really difficult but in your soul you will feel joy. If He who was innocent can suffer more than any of us we should try our best to follow His lead. Praise Be Jesus Christ.

  5. Also we should contemplate- maybe the crosses we are given and have to endure are known by Him to be the only way we get to Heaven- that otherwise we would be led astray and never atone or be purified for our sinful nature.
    Truly He who is Love knows best.

  6. I’m very confused right now. While I agree with most of this article, I have some personal observations. I believe that name it claim it is just wrong and very misleading to many people who are vulnerable in faith as it is. I’m in a lot of pain now b/c I don’t feel God is answering my prayers to bring home my bi-polar wife. Ironically, we didn’t find out she was bi-polar until AFTER I had prayed to God to renew and heal her mind while going through another marital issue. I always present my petitions to the Lord with humility and asking the Lord to grant me things based on HIS WILL as well as “remind” him of his WORD that cannot return void. I add to that though that if he is going to say “No”, then I ask him to reveal to me why. Unfortunately in what I’m going through now, I cant imagine him saying No to me regarding my wife. His WORD is so clear on marriage and what HE expects even though man AND church have distorted Gods WORD by “making room for” allowances based on societies view point and what “MAY seem right unto man”. Just my opinion. I would love feedback to show me where I could be wrong, b/c I’m seriously hurting and need all the wisdom I can get.

    1. Hello John,

      I had come across your post earlier today. Please know that I offered up a rosary for your family today.
      I did a little searching the web, and I found that Catholic Charities has a bipolar disorder treatment program. Don’t know if this will be of any help. I will talk to my priest this weekend and see if he has any suggestions.

      John, keep frequenting the sacraments, they have amazing power. Keep trusting in our Lord, and offer your sufferings up for your wife and for the souls in purgatory.

      My email is [email protected] if you want to stay in touch.

      God bless.


      1. I’ve been married thirty years and the last twenty three spent knowing and dealing with my wife’s bipolar disease and the collateral damage that came with it. It’s not about getting your prayer’s answered according to your expectations, whether it be for your or others sake. Prayer is an act of developing a spiritual relationship with God. We each have our own personal struggles with life and relations. My wife and I raised three children through all that and the details are not always what one would care to discuss in a bragging contest. Humility, courage, perseverance are the challenges of our faith in God, not challenging Him with our misperceptions of scripture and the journey of life. Monsignor Pope has frequently shared his personal experiences on this subject. There are times when you have to fish or cut bait. Prayer is a personal conversation with God and that is closer and bigger than the world we have no control over. You either believe what you are doing or you don’t. It’s not about expecting desired outcomes in this world. Humble pie is a dish most often seved cold.

  7. When I was a boy, I recall praying that a motorcycle would be in my room in the morning when I woke up.

  8. JohnM

    I am praying that your Wife returns to you safely. You both carry a huge cross. Two things stand out in your post to me:

    1. Perhaps for you God requires you to accept he is saying “no” without limiting the acceptance by asking that he explains the reason for his no.

    2. God loves your wife more than you do. He will always do what is best for her. One day, either in this world or the next, both of you will understand completely why this cross was sent to you.

    Keep praying

  9. @John M,

    I have experienced something very similar and went through a couple of years of a lot of mental and emotional anguish over it. Now, about six years later I still do not understand the why’s of God filling me with love for a particular man yet denying me any relationship with him. However, I accept that I do not have to know the why’s to understand and completely trust that God knows best and I do and live my best by living His will for me. I’m very sorry that you have to go through this, but if you hang on and work to love and know God, the rest will become endurable.

  10. JohnM

    God owes us no explanations. We might get one, and it might even be explicit and repeated, but there is no reason to feel entitled to the Father’s thinking, and it is probably at least somewhat presumptuous to think we would understand His reasoning. I would be more inclined to ask for strength to endure what His will requires, and I often ask for His reasons for the way events unfold, but expecting an explanation and being disappointed with not being given such insight is neglecting the vast gulf between the nature of ourselves as He created and He who created everything “by the word of His power.”

    In re-reading Job it seems as though we are often given some new insight, as in all scripture often in phrases we’ve read and re-read often before. I noted recently, for example, the readers of that book are apparently nowhere given any indication that Job was ever given an explanation for his season of suffering. We readers are given the context in broad strokes, and there is a climax where the Lord corrects Job’s “comforters,” and Job confesses his subservient position before God, but nowhere are we told Job ever, in his lifetime and latter blessings, learned as much about what was really going on as any later reader learns in the earliest chapters.

    God owes us no explanations.

  11. In regards to the ask, seek, and knock passage in scripture, think about Saint Monica. She had to pray for 30 years for her son. Sometimes we take silence as a “no” from God when it may truly be “not yet” which means we should not give up while accepting that things will happen in God’s timing and not our own. The best homily I heard about persistence in prayer explained that God’s answers should be viewed as “yes” “wait” or “I have something better in mind”.

  12. As regards yesterday’s Gospel reading I think it important to contemplate our Good Master’s point.; “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?” All is God’s Grace, in Him we can endure any cross. Trust God and listen. I am praying with you.

    All things in Christ

  13. My sentiments as well Ramanie! Blessings upon you, Msgr. Pope….and upon all who read it!

    I received a Catholic book of Prayers 15yrs ago, a gift from a very devout aunt, given at the bedside of my wife in ICU. Aunt and Uncle stood as God parents while my wife was baptized and given Last Rites. She was not expected to survive the night (heart transplant list)….her heart had stopped for a second time, and brought back! Within a half hour of baptism, all vital signs improved…enough for her to be flown by emergency cessna ….from mid canada, to London, ontario. Although she never did receive her heart, she was returned to me/family yet again….for another 7 yrs, and three grand children. For which I will be forever grateful to OUR LORD! Within that book, given at her bedside, tucked neatly within the see thru back book jacket, but within plain view….was an index card with the following Prayer…typed out! And written in pen at the very top…

    ” A favorite prayer of Pope John Paul “…

    And it is a prayer that I have always turned to….and forever will! It says….

    ” Cheer up, GOD is with you. You suffer it is true, but HE is near you. Trust HIM as you would your own Father. If HE has let you suffer…it is because HE sees something good in it which today you do not yet know! Your peace of mind is in the trust in HIM who can never let you down!”



  14. A lifetime of suffering and i rejoice in all of it. For now over 50 years later i finally see the why’s of it all. Trust in God requires a childlike humility and complete abandonment to His will. After a lifetime of seemingly unanswered prayers, they are being answered. God knows what is best for us. We, living in the flesh, don’t have a clue. I have lost all 9 members of my immediate family, 4 of them alone in 2006-2007. Lost my home and all i knew. But God had me firmly in His loving hands. Now i minister to the lost in the streets and online. Telling others of God’s abundant love and mercy.

Comments are closed.