We are often quite certain that we know what is best for us. Therefore, we pray, asking God for good health, prosperity, or victory in some cause. But what if it is better for us to be unhealthy, to be poor, or to lose? Can we really say we know what is best and confidently set before God our agenda?
James and John sought honors and exaltation, but Jesus responded, You do not know what you are asking (Mark 10:38). Paul prayed three times to be delivered from some physical malady, but the Lord said no and taught him that the affliction was necessary to keep him from being too elated by the blessings he had seen. Weakness was necessary to keep Paul humble and able to realize that it was God’s strength and not his that accomplished anything good or lasting.
Scripture says, We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans (Rom 8:26). Meditating on this passage, St. Augustine wrote,
We do not know what it is right to pray for; yet, because it is difficult, troublesome and against the grain for us, weak as we are, we do what every human would do, we pray that it may be taken away from us. We owe, however, at least this much in our duty to God: if he does not take it away, we must not imagine that we are being forgotten by him but because of our loving endurance of evil, must await greater blessings in its place. In this way, power shines forth more perfectly in weakness.
These words are written to prevent us from having too great an opinion of ourselves if our prayer is granted, and when we are impatient in asking for something that it would be better not to receive; and to prevent us from being dejected, and distrustful of God’s mercy toward us, if our prayer is not granted, [For, indeed] … we [may] ask for something that would bring us greater affliction, or completely ruin us through the corrupting influence of prosperity.
In these cases, we do not know what is right to ask for in prayer.
Therefore, if something happens that we did not pray for, we must have no doubt at all that what God wants is more expedient than what we wanted ourselves. Our great Mediator gave us an example of this. After he had said: Father, if it is possible, let this cup be taken away from me, he immediately added, Yet not what I will, but what you will, Father (Letter to Proba, Ep. 130, 25-26).
Humility in prayer, humility.
I have shared this story here before, but it is worth repeating. It teaches on the often-ambiguous qualities of events and problems and how we are often in no position to distinguish a blessing from a burden:
There was a man who was a farmer. One day the wind blew the gate of his field open and his valued and only horse escaped and was not to be found. His friends came to commiserate with him about this loss, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”
Several days later, the horse returned with a wild stallion and a mare. His friends came to rejoice with him in his good fortune, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”
Several days later, his son was breaking in the new horses and was cast from the back of the wild stallion and suffered a broken arm and leg. The farmer’s friends came and commiserated with him about his son’s injuries, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”
Several days later, troops of the emperor came to the area to draft the young men of the village into his army. But the farmer’s son was exempted due to his injuries. And the farmer’s friends came to rejoice with him that his son was not taken away, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”
Yes, in so many events of life we lack the comprehensive view to sit in judgment on their full meaning. We ought to pray, but in great humility. God knows what we are really asking and what will really bless us. He asks us to pray. He wants to engage us, but the answer must be His; what is His is always best. Blessings are not always as they seem; neither are burdens. Sometimes the best we can do is to say, “We’ll see.” Meanwhile we pray—in humility, always in humility.