Perhaps like you, I have to see people I love and care about through some difficult periods in their lives. One neighbor and parishioner recently lost her eight-year-old daughter to cancer. A number of my parishioners are seeking work and praying daily for it, but no employment offers have been forthcoming. Still others cry out for relief from any number of different crosses. I, too, have lots of things for which I pray; sometimes I get discouraged or even angry when God seems to say, “No” or, “Wait.”
There is one thing that I have learned about true prayer: 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. Yet we are often so sure that we know what is best for us or best for others. But what we find is that the outcome we want is not necessarily the best one for us. This insight requires great humility. We see so little and understand even less. Though it is not wrong to ask for some particular outcome, we need to do so humbly. God alone knows the best answer and when to give it. Recognizing this requires humility.
There is an old teaching that basically says this: 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 then doing it. I heard an African-American preacher put it this way: “You’ve got a lot of 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 forgotten.”
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 we don’t really know what’s best. James and John came to Jesus one day seeking high positions in the new administration (Kingdom). Jesus said to them, You do not 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)).