The teaching of sacred Scripture on intercessory prayer is complex, and unless we maintain a balanced view of the fuller teaching of Scripture, distortions in our understanding of the prayer of petition (or intercession) can occur.
In the Gospel for Thursday in the first week of Lent, the Lord gives a teaching on prayer that seems quite straightforward. He says:
Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him. (Matt 7:7-11)
Now on the one hand, this teaching seems to be rather simple: that we should ask and we will receive. On the other hand, experience is often a teacher and can cause discouragement among the faithful who think that they have asked, sometimes repeatedly, for things that they did not get. And this is why it is important to lay hold of the wider teachings of Scripture on prayers of intercession.
It will be noted that even in this text, Jesus indicates that the Father wants to give “good things,” not just anything, to those who ask him. This qualification is important.
Elsewhere, Scripture lists any number of other teachings that indicate possible reasons that God either says “No” to our prayer, or delays in His answer to us. It is important to refer to these sorts of texts. The danger always remains in reading Scripture, that we take one line and make it the whole of Scripture. To do such a thing is inauthentic and does not respect the fact Scripture often speaks far more richly on topics. Sloganizing certain verses is disrespectful both to God and to the Holy Word entrusted to our care. The Bible is not to be reduced to a few favorite verses but is to be read as a whole, in context, and with a careful balance that respects how any particular verse relates to the wider Scriptures, the teaching and Tradition of the Church, and the overall trajectory of God’s revelation.
There are other texts that, while not canceling the confident expectation of asking and receiving, teach that God does not simply hand over his sovereignty to our whimsical requests. There are in fact reasons why God sometimes says “No,” or sometimes delays in His answer. I have written on this previously here: When God says “No”
But for our purposes here, we do well to return to Jesus’ expression that the Father wants to give “good things” (not just anything), to those who ask Him. This statement of Jesus should lead us to ponder whether we really do ask for the best and most important things God really wants to give us, or whether we ask for lesser things.
Truth be told, we tend to be more focused on lesser and passing things than on better and eternal things. The Book of James warns about this in saying:
You have not because you ask not. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your lusts. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:2-4)
Now while this saying from the book of James may be a bit strongly worded (James usually is!), it remains true that we easily and quickly run to God about matters of finance, our health, a job, or some material need. Yet when was the last time we asked for wisdom, chastity, greater holiness, the gift to love our enemy, greater love for our family, or a greater thirst for prayer, etc.?
An old spiritual says “King Jesus is a-listening all day long, to hear some sinner pray.” Yes, it may well be that Jesus lives for the day when I ask for something that really matters. Consider, for example, the opening prayer from the Mass in which this reading was found (Thursday, Week 1 of Lent):
Bestow on us, we pray, O Lord,
a spirit always pondering on what is right
and of hastening to carry it out,
and, since without you we cannot exist,
may we be enabled to live according to your will.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The prayers of Mass are meant to be a model for us; they’re not simply gibberish that the priest says and we say amen at the end of the “formula.” We ought to learn from such prayers how to pray. Now note what this prayer is asking! It is asking for a mind and heart that seek and hunger for what is good, right, just, and true. It is asking not only for a hunger for good things, but for a will, a desire, to carry it out promptly, zealously, and without delay.
Now when was the last time you or I really prayed this way – from the heart? Too often we are content to ask God to fix our finances, fix our health, open some door or opportunity here, give us good weather for the picnic, or make something go well. None of this is wrong, and to some extent we ought to pray for every little and big thing in our life. But the impression is almost given, when this is all we pray about, that if God will just make this world a little better place we’ll be willing to stay here forever. Our prayers often imply we love the world and the things of the world more than we love God and the things of God.
How God must “wait for the day” when we would pray a prayer like the one above from the heart and really mean it! What are you praying about? Is it what God wants you to pray about? Really? Is God delighted in what you pray for? There is nothing wrong in praying for the lesser things and needs of this world, but if that is all we pray for, our omission of eternal, holy, and lasting things is significant and sad.
Consider by way of conclusion a story about the early life of Solomon:
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day. “Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”
The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” (1 Kings 3:5-14)
How pleased the Lord was with Solomon’s request! And the Lord replied abundantly. We often wonder if God will answer our prayers, but do we ever ask if God is pleased with our requests?
The Father wants to give “good things” to those who ask him. To ask for greater holiness and for a mind and heart that seeks God’s will, not merely to tell him our will, must please God greatly. So does a repentant heart that seeks mercy and reconciliation. Yes, “King Jesus is a-listening all day long, to hear some sinner pray!”