Humility in Prayer

100814I, perhaps like you, have to see folks I love and care about through some difficult periods in their lives. 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 to be forthcoming. Still others cry out for relief from 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 is that 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 is that our desired 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 particular outcome, and it is not wrong to do so, we need to ask humbly. We must recognize that God alone knows the best answer and when to answer. This is humility.

There is an old teaching that basically says that although many think of prayer as trying to get God to do your will, true prayer is trying to understand what God’s will is and then doing it. I heard an 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 12:7-9).

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 His power is at its best in our 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 (Rom 5:19).

(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:

12 Replies to “Humility in Prayer”

  1. Dear Brother in Christ,
    When I first sit down with my Confirmation Candidates, we have a three year program, I ask about their prayer life. Most have a pretty good one, however there are some that only speak to God when THEY need something. It reminds me of when I was young and would ask why God did not instantly heal me and usually my mother would point to someone else that really had a heavy cross to bare, letting me know mine was not that burdensome.

    I point out to them, as you did, how Jesus even asks for the cup to pass, how he even prayed to have what he wanted, only relenting to God’s will. Jesus teaches us that when we give into the will of God we can then find true peace. I also read the passage from Luke 11:5-8 and at first they think if they ask often enough then they will get what they want.

    I have them reflect on the passage again and then they come to the conclusion that when they pray repeatedly, daily and with their heart, God gets to know their voice and they his. They learn that once they know this they can hear what it is God’s asks of them, they realize that we all must carry our cross and God gives us what we need to carry our cross.

    I rejoice when I hear the truth you share with us.
    May God keep you close to his heart my Brother.
    Love and Peace to you.

  2. Great post, as always 🙂 I used to pray, as a kid, for God to “make things right again.” As I got older, I realized that God would give me the strength to deal with difficult things and I would learn and grow. I now pray, for myself and for others, for the strength to deal with difficult situations and the ability to learn from the situations. I also pray for help with forgiving others. It’s something that is not easy for me particularly when it involves someone who has deeply hurt me or has done what I consider an unforgivable sin (rape, murder, child molestation are on that list among a few other things). I’m currently reading Father Scott Hurd’s new book on Forgiveness for some help with forgiving. It’s a great book. I enjoyed your book on the Ten Commandments – it was very well written and will serve as good guidance for Confession. Thank you and God Bless you for all that you do – I know that you are incredibly busy!

  3. Came across a passage in the Diary of St.Faustina yest . on interceding for souls – ‘ their perfection depends on your perfection ‘ ( apologies , forget which section exactly ) ; used to resent the almost similar meaning words of Bl.Mother in Fatima – ‘ many souls go to hell becuase there is no one to pray for them ‘- an aweful thing to think that someone could be in hell because one did not pray / love enough for them ! Now realises also the reverse of that , how there can be great things from prayer – such as souls leaving purgatory , having conversions ..

    The theme of repenting on behalf of family lines which seems to help the prayers to be more effective is a topic getting more attention from books /seminars by persons such as Fr.Yozefu ;

    As reminded by one priest , The Lord did say – ‘whatever you ask in My Name’ meaning like how He would ask for and may be we are in a time when The Church need to pray more ardently for those who have gone ahead of us , to be blessed in turn , for coming generations , to be set free from ‘ generational curses ‘ .

    Have found how when praying in that oneness with all in one’s lives ,asking for mercy for the living and the deceased ,esp. in the life of the one that one is esp. praying for , there can be more of a sense of peace !

    Praying for deliverance from deep seated areas of the seven vices is a great need in our times and may be more devotion of praying with St.Magdalene , esp. at The Cross , she from whom The Lord cast out the seven devils ; her intercession might be a remedy that can be better used, to instill hope and trust – by often invoking The Lord or The Mother , with her , in the Our Father /Hail Mary prayers ; living in the midst of Roman soldiers , she would have dealt with what our society too is dealing with , as well as possibly sins against life as well as dealing with those afflicted by greed for power and money – the parallel situation in life now a days being wherein one or even both partners might be married to self ( of selfishness ) or other such tools of the enemy !

    There is even the mysterious passage in St.Paul about how persons can be given over to the enemy, by persistent sin !

    Bl. Emmerich mentions how what The Lord was asking for in The Garden was, to be set free from the normal aversion of human nature, for suffering , not The Passion per se , hence possibly the words ‘if possible ‘ ; likley that He wanted to undertake the sufferings , in total surrendering love ,with no trace of aversion , for the benefit of The Bride , The Church , even while beginning to see the magniture and bitterness of sin, while in The Agony ..

    such a clarity may be a need for some who might keep the mistrust – if The Father would not even listen to His Son .. we read how the angels came to comfort Him too .

    True, humility of trusting how God and His plans can be great and far reaching, beyond what we see in the immediacy of time , with our little minds and hearts , thus the need to persevere , also for the benfit of those who have gone ahead of us, and coming after us and how without some turbulence in life, many can easily become lukewarm or more worldly , how prayer itself is such a privilege , of being in The Presence of a God of love and holiness – may many be blessed with the reminders of same , as you have done !

    Thank you !

  4. “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.”
    -Saint Teresa of Avila

  5. +Could there be any more perfect . . . “prayer of humility” . . . than that of our Holy Mother’s . . . the Blessed Virgin Mary’s . . . fiat? The extraordinary Benedictine saint . . . St. Bernard of Clairvoux . . . spoke of the Virgin Mary’s . . . utterly pure . . . immaculate . . . sinless soul . . . as being . . . wonderfully . . . revealed in Mary’s . . . holy responsiveness . . . to the proclamation and request of our LORD and our GOD . . . as delivered by His Holy Archangel Gabriel . . . which response of the Blessed Virgin Mary was to . . . “BREATHE a passing word and EMBRACE the Eternal Word” . . .

    +“And Mary said:
    ‘Behold the
    of the
    Be it done unto me
    according to
    Thy Word’
    (Luke 1:38a)

    “And the WORD was made FLESH, and DWELT among us (and we saw His glory, the glory as it were of the ONLY BEGOTTEN of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

    . . . all for Jesus+

  6. This is probably the most practical post on prayer I have read. You always find the target, Father. Grazie mille!

  7. I am reminded of the Blessed Mother at the marriage feast of Cana — she told our Lord that there was no more wine, but did not request a particular remedy. A scripture professor pointed out that this is a good model for intercession — praying on the problem or issue, but leaving the rest to our Lord.

    Thank you for your posts — they are a beacon of hope for me.

  8. Why can’t I be married? Why is there no wife for me? Must I be alone for the rest of my life?

    1. I feel your pain. So I pray that my eyes might be open, both to my deficiencies I might work on improving, and the women in my life, who might be someone special for me. However, in my nightly routine I pray “We realize that the sickness and evil we encounter is more than our humanity can bear.” I have met several women who appear to have successfully managed the single divorced life. They have been divorced for several years and have lives which seem to be happy without a man. They have a circle of friends and family and aren’t willing to upset that apple cart with a man. So I commend them to the Blessed Mother and ask that someone who would be happy with me to come my way.

  9. Praying for someone does NOT mean being smart enough to tell God HOW do bring that person to conversion, or WHEN to bring that person in. When I am praying for a child or grandchild who seems to have abandoned the Faith, I visualize God as a fisherman who has this child/grandchild on the end of a long fishing line. The line may be wrapped around some rocks or logs, but i pray that God will reel this fish in. It may not happen during my earthly lifetime, but I pray that it will happen.
    How about praying for people who had sudden, unprovided deaths such as in traffic accidents? They may have had no opportunity to go to confession after the event before their deaths. God is the master of time; time, after all, is a creature. I have a half-dozen acquaintances & relatives who experienced sudden deaths.
    Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for the opportunity to express this.

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