On Humility in Prayer

I, 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:

25 Replies to “On Humility in Prayer”

  1. I pray that your neighbor will find some peace even though it must be unimaginably difficult to bear the death of their daughter. God bless them and hold them in HIs loving Hands and ease their pain. Tonight I share it.

    This was the one thing I asked to not be put to the test with when I was in RCIA. Here I was falling in love with Jesus but I knew I could not handle this one thing … I prayed about this all through Lent because I wanted to be able to accept “Thy will” completely. Palm Sunday came and I felt I could not make the promise. I wanted to run away. But I stayed. And when my husband and children were baptized, I relinquished them to Jesus. It is so difficult when His will is not my will … but perhaps it is the greatest (and hardest) lesson I am learning: obedience.

    As always, thank you for teaching us how to pray, to think, to be.

  2. Father M. Eugene Boylan’s book, This Tremendous Lover, made a great impact on me when I read it three or four years ago. One of his most important points is abandonment to the will of God, rooted in humility. There were many prayers in my life that seemed to be unanswered, and there still are many to which the answer wearily continues to be, as you say, “No”, or “Wait”. Yet the Lord himself has told us to pray and not lose heart!

    How can we continue faithfully and humbly in prayer, overcome weariness, lift our drooping hands and ask again? Fr. Boylan’s answer is to grow in the knowledge of the tremendous love that Jesus has for us, to be so permeated with this that our confidence in His providence grows inversely proportionate to the size of our pride.

    Sometimes when we need encouragement in prayer, it is helpful to recall those prayers that WERE answered to our astonishment and delight. And it can be enlightening to reflect on those prayers that were answered, but to which the answer turned out to be different and obviously much better than if we’d received exactly that for which we had prayed. The circumstances surrounding my finding of Boylan’s book illustrates this.

    One sleepless night I wandered into our “library” (we love books and so they are tucked away in many places throughout the house, but there is a large concentration of them in the basement), attempting to find Philip Yancy’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, a book that had brought me a great deal of comfort the year before. I needed comfort, and I was sure that book was what I needed. I asked the Holy Spirit to guide me in finding it and spent a fair amount of time futilely poring over titles. It was also a time of quite deep discouragment, depression and sadness and I often felt that the Lord was distant and uncaring.

    As I say, over the course of thirty plus years of marriage, my wife and I have accumulated more than a few books, and to cope (rather than purge!), we have books behind books on most of our deeper shelves. I began pulling books out of the front rows to search the hidden stash. Where could that dang book have gone?

    My eyes lit on a title that my wife had brought with her into our marriage and that I had probably passed over many times. I pulled it out. The author was someone I had never heard of. The edition appeared to be from that pre-Vatican-II, pre-charismatic renewal era of dry and soul-withering writing. But the title intrigued me, and so I began.

    The style was definitely as I had suspected: dated and requiring some effort, which at three a.m., I didn’t feel like putting forth. But somehow I continued.

    Looking back now, after having read it through so long ago (it took me many months to work my way through it and ponder its lessons), and having read sections of it over and over, and having read portions to my wife, and realizing how the Lord began using it to change my outlook, I am amazed at God’s timing. It sat on my shelf for thirty years. When I asked my wife about it, she said she’d gotten it sometime during college, but didn’t remember where or how. She didn’t recall having ever read it! So there it sat, like a dry and dead looking seed, dropped into a corner by “mistake”, awaiting the light and soil and moisture necessary to put forth life and bear fruit.

    Every prayer we pray is like this. It may appear to have dropped off of the face of the earth into oblivion, but this is simply not true. Your angel has faithfully carried it to heaven and offered it like incense in the Presence of the Holy Trinity. It has been heard. It will be answered, and the answer will reflect the nature of Him who receives it: vastly wise, infinitely comforting, directly personal. But until it is revealed, we must wait.

    Meanwhile, let us make every prayer we say worthy of the effort of that angel, and worthy to be made in the awesome Presence of Him to Whom it is bound.

    1. You had me until this sentence; ‘The edition appeared to be from that pre-Vatican-II, pre-charismatic renewal era of dry and soul-withering writing.’ I have to point out that, intentionally or unintentionally, you single handedly, in one sentence, managed to disparage and negate 2000 years of the treasure of the deposit of faith held by the Church. I can only hope your having read this book has changed your heart and mind.

      1. And, if you read further, you will see that changing my heart and mind is the whole point! 🙂

  3. Thank you for a beautiful post. I struggle with pride, seeking humility, and it is a tough road. As a priest once told me, “if you ask for humility, you will be sent humiliations.” We must always be ready to accept God’s answer, especially if it is ‘yes’ …

    1. Is this the title, Mark?
      This Tremendous Lover

      I would like to also read it!

      Father Charles, as always, your post is inspiring. Thank you.

  4. You hit it on head again Msgr. I believe that the best road to humility is obediance to God’s will, and turths as taught by the Church.

  5. “It is so difficult when His will is not my will … but perhaps it is the greatest (and hardest) lesson I am learning: obedience.”
    “I believe that the best road to humility is obediance to God’s will”

    It certainly can seen difficult at first, especially since the word “obedience” seems so harsh and antithetical to our desire for and understanding of freedom.

    But just exactly what does it mean to be “obedient” to God’s will? And what is God’s will, that we might be so resistant to it?

    God’s will is easy to discern, at least in the general sense, even if some want to confound by insisting that God is an unfathomable mystery, etc., etc.

    What is that will? Well, Jesus has already told us, many times. God’s will is love. God made us in love, by love, for love — to love and be loved. God’s will is also truth, including the truth of why He made us.

    However, it is also God’s will — which is part and parcel of love — that we be free. The truth of love is that by its very nature, to be truly love, it is something that is only freely given. Forced love is not love. And the problem is that some of us have, by free choice of the will, chosen to not give that love to Him or to others. But it is His will that we, that is, ourselves and other people, be able to do that.

    So, to desire that God’s will be done is nothing more harsh or oppressive than to desire that we be true to the people God made us to be, to desire that people love one another, but respecting the fact that other people are free agents and they might choose not to do that.

    Again, God’s will is that we be free, but God’s will is also truth, and it is only in truth that we are genuinely free (“the truth will set you free”). Those that choose against love and truth are not really free, but enslaved to error and sin. So, to be “obedient” to God’s will is not to put chains upon ourselves, but is to authentically and fully be free — it is only in this apparent paradox of obedience that we are truly free because it is only in being obedient to God’s will of love and truth that we are emancipated from the slavery of sin and error.

    Thus, in the end, although it might seem difficult at first, to pray that God’s will be done and to be obedient to God’s will is not harsh or undesirable at all. Rather, it merely means that we be truly free — radically free — that we exercise our freedom to be true to the people that we were meant to be, that we were made to be, people of love. And that we do this all by ourselves, but consistent with love, we do it with God, that we “obey,” not merely by our own efforts, but by doing what we can ourselves and asking God for help, i.e. grace, to do the rest, such that “obeying” is really nothing more than putting ourselves in God’s hands, asking Him to give you the grace to be the person of love and truth that you were made to be, which is what His will is.

    1. Yes, you explain this so well and as I grow in my faith, it does become easier to accept God’s will. Discernment is not always easy, but this is where prayer helps. I don’t always like the answer. I still remember thinking two years ago, if something dreadful should happen, would I be able to forgive God? Imagine the audacity of such a thought when everything, including my very breath comes from Him. I know now that nothing can make me turn away from Him … but that doesn’t mean I don’t like when certain things happen. What I am learning is to cultivate “thankfulness in all circumstances,” even the ones I don’t like.

    2. A correction —

      And that we do this all by ourselves, but consistent with love, we do it with God . . .

      That should be — “And that we NOT do this all by ourselves, but consistent with love, we do it with God . . .”

  6. St. Augustine’s Letter to Proba (Ep. 130, 14, 27 – 15, 28: CSEL 44, 71-73; Divine Office- LOH Vol IV -p.429-30 – Fri. 29th Wk. Ord. Time;) titled “The Spirit pleads for Us,” correlates with Rom: 8:26; which I feel is the prayer which cannot be denied. “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth with our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” I say this verse every morning included in my string of prayers because I simply do not know what is best for me and my loved one’s. It seems to keep me free from major illness.

    Augustine’s letter to Proba also says: “In heaven is the fountain of ife, that we should now thirst for in prayer as long as we live in hope and do not yet see the object of our hope, under the protection of his wings in whose presence is all our desire….Yes, since this is that peace that surpasses all understanding, even when we ask for it in prayer we do not know something if we cannot think of it as it really is; whatever comes to mind we reject, repudiate, find fault with; we know that this is not what we are seeking, even if we do not yet know what kind of thing it really is.”
    Augustine’s letter continues: “There is then within us a kind of instructed ignorance, instructed, that is, by the Spirit of god who helps our weakness. When the Apostle said: If we hope for something we do not see, we look forward to it with patience, he added, In the same way the Spirit helps our weakness; we do not know what is right to pray for, but the spirit himself pleads with sighs too deep for words. He who searches hearts knows what the Spirit means, for he pleads for the saints according to Gods will. We must not understand by this that the Holy Spirit of God pleads for the saints as if he were someone different from what God is: in the Trinity the Spirit is the unchangeable God and one God with the Father and the Son…. How can words express what we desire when it remains unknown? If we were entirely ignorant of it we would not desire it; again, we would not desire it or seek it with sighs, if we were able to see it.

    Roman 8:26, is a prayer I have printed and given to my family, especially when they are in a hospital. I also say that verse – prayer when I pray for someone who is ill. Maybe there is some truth to that cliche “IGNORANCE IS BLISS.”

  7. One of my kids’ favorite books is Fool Moon Rising. The moon boast of its glory being so bold as to believe that its glow comes from within, until it comes to realize that its light is a reflection of the sun. It’s a great book to teach little ones about the glory of God and how all that is good in them is a reflection of what is great in Him. I think if one comes to really believe that, doing God’s will becomes understandable, even if not enjoyable.

    My 12 yr old son plays football and is quite good. He can play most positions well and really wanted to play RB, but they had enough kids who could play that position and not enough who could play guard well. So, he’s on the line, both offense & defense. He was disappointed that he wouldn’t be running the ball but accepted that his team needed him to play specific positions and plays his best. Another child wanted to play QB and quit the team when the coach said no. It’s funny how often we, adults, respond to God’s positioning in the same two ways. I’m not sure humility comes naturally with age.

  8. This is all very understandable and acceptable. But, I’m always quite torn when trying to reconcile it with the “faith to move mountains” passages such as the following.

    He said to them, “Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” — Matthew 17:20

    Is Jesus speaking in hyperbole? Did the author forget to write down what he said next? (Perhaps he said, “alright, not really a *mountain* perse, but you know what I mean … really *heavy* stuff, you know!?”)

    Is he speaking symbolically? Is he hyping up the crowd? Or is he speaking literally, like our good friend Master Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

    So, can we lift the x-wing or not? And when we fail, is it because we didn’t really believe we (or God?) could do it? Or is it because that’s not the intention of Jesus’ “just have faith” speeches? Did the authors omit some lines because they thought it was obvious that no one could *really* move a mountain at will, by faith alone?

    How do you tell your atheist friends to take Jesus seriously when you can even move a mountain!? I can say things like, “Take everything in context. This isn’t an isolated statement.” But, in reality, even I can’t escape the immediate context wherein Jesus does something miraculous and then effectively says, “Oh, that? That’s not so impressive: You can do it too. Hell, you can even move this mountain!”

    1. edit: “take Jesus seriously when you CAN even” -> “take Jesus seriously when you CAN’T even”

      1. Is Jesus speaking in hyperbole?

        Jesus did on occasion speak in hyperbole, but I think that on this occasion, the answer is that He meant what He said, as fantastic as that might sound.

        Remember Peter. What allowed him to walk on the water was faith – enough faith that fully accepted the GRACE that would allow him to counteract physical laws. It was not faith so much that would allow us to move mountains, but the grace that comes with such faith as Jesus spoke of.

        The problem is that most of us do not have even a mustard seed’s worth of real faith. We are still too grounded in the things of this world and, thus, we cannot go beyond and transcend the things of this world. Accordingly, we might believe — we might believe really hard — but our faith is still insufficient to move mountains because it is still insufficient to fully accept and cooperate with grace, which is the very power of God to do the impossible.

        After the end, after we have our glorified bodies, being in the fullness of grace, we will then necessarily have sufficient faith, and we will be able to tell a mountain to move here or there.

      2. Remember too — although this is not explicitly said in the Gospels, but if you take a closer look, there is something common to each time and each place where Jesus performs a miracle, as compared to those places where He does not. Everywhere that He performs a miracle, there are people who believe, there are people who have faith. And in those places where there is no faith, where people do not believe, no miracles are performed.

        Now, it is not the faith of the people that cause the miracle — Jesus does that. But it does seem that the faith of people did and does play a part in whether God does a miracle or not.

        The centurion had faith, and his servant was healed. The folks busting through Peter’s roof had faith, and the paralytic was healed. Mary had faith, and the water turned to wine. Although she was later concerned about the smell, Martha had faith to confess Jesus as the Messiah, and her four-day dead brother Lazarus was raised from the dead.

        I don’t know why anyone would necessarily want to use their faith to move a mountain, but if it is enough to bring the dead back to life (again, by that faith invoking grace), it is enough to move Mt. Everest.

  9. I totally agree to come before God with humility and leave everything to his will for he alone knows what is best for me. But I still get confused about tenacity, perseverance, and persistence in prayer, as in the examples Jesus told in the parables of the Contemptible Friend (LK 11:5-8) and the Corrupt Judge (Lk 18:1-8) and other parables of this kind in the Bible. It sounds like I have to ” storm the heavens” until my request is granted. How does one reconcile saying to God, “Thy will be done” (for me, it means to leave it there- with God), and to be persistent (in modern lingo, “keep bugging” him)? Thank you.

  10. Was Mark’s book the Bible? It sat around my house for a long time, requires effort for me and has to be read over and over…

  11. Yes, yes, yes! I always derive so much comfort by ending my prayer requests with “not mine, but Thy Will be Done.” That way I know God will let me know sooner or later, but I know He heard me.
    Thank you.

  12. I feel that I should share with you some fantastic praying experiences which produced fruit in the past, and surprisingly to me that I only became aware of 3 or 4 years ago during my reflections on my past life, that God did in fact his part and sorted everything out.The very first one was 47 years ago when I was only 16 years of age the first born among 7 children, when I was in bed and my parents were under the impression that I was fast asleep. I heard my father full of disappointment and frustration explaining to my mother that he was completely without any kind of work to do ,and how depressed he was to open his workshop as a cabinet maker every day and not have anything to work considering the fact those days, that his workshop was situated in a main road and always wide open in order to demonstrate his craftsmanship. I instantly started to pray God, and I in my whole life I can’t remember crying so much as I did that particular horrible night. When I got up it was like an ordinary day for me already forgotten all about it, but without even reflected about it afterwards, I discovered that my father became very busy and never stopped being so till he retired. The second prayer when I seriously communicated with God, happened 29 years ago, when employed then as a general manager, the company refused to give me a new contract ,thanks God for that, I empty handed, with no kind of capital, started my own business. I was a father then of a 10 year old boy and a husband to a fully dedicated house wife, and which I am very proud of, I relied on God convinced that I will succeed. My Mrs. was shocked for dropping the kind of job I had, to start something very risky like that. On my way to my first day of work, and since than thanks God, never stopped, I prayed God and said these exact words like I told them to a person next to me: God you gave me talents, I am going to do all what’s within my power not only to survive and bring my family up but also that I will never be employed again and so determined simply because I believe in you, and I’m definitely sure that you will do your part ,by supply all that I require to achieve my aim, no more no less, I am spiritually weak as you know and I don’t want to loose my only soul which belongs to you, so I am only aiming to bring up my family the way to please you . From zero material but rich in God’s spirit, and without any kind of loans, commercials what so ever, not even a delivery truck for my furniture and simply my reputation and work itself . Today I am looking forward to retirement proud that with God as foundation and as investment, I employed at one stage fifteen people, I was entrusted with contracts as high as 500,000 dollar and my work is situated both on the highest locality in my country and also in the highest historical buildings like Cathedrals, not only that but my architects 5 years ago informed me that for the first time in their history, one of their projects was awarded the ‘Ewropa Nostra’ the highest honour in construction work on which I was the person responsible for the woodwork. God said “That’s how I do my part to whom ever trust, and rely totally in me”. Again I only was aware of this kind of response from God 3 years ago, when I generally started living more spiritually and dedicated more time praying, meditating, and studying seriously the Gospel, and I reflected, and realized how responsive God is when all the prayers come from the hearth within love for him and through our Lord Jesus Christ our saviour at all times and in all circumstances, and especially when we humbly and totally rely on his will. The third and last and also the one which mostly impressed me was when twenty four years ago, my wife and I while in the sitting room, received a phone call from my only 16 year old son from UK where he was in his first ever trip on his own on a football tour with his club, After that rather excited and inspiring call I told my wife how stupid we were not to have more children considering the fact that we were still under 40 and already considering ourselves rather too swayed and fruitless, in being childless when in fact we aren’t, and in that moment in time I wished within my hearth and relied on God’s will to become a father again, something which I always insisted on ,that to have at least three children, but in the same time realizing how difficult it was for my wife to accept knowing that she already made up her mind after the awful time she had losing two premature babies. After more than three months from the election campaign to which my wife was totally dedicated and also positively ignoring completely her monthly period believing that somehow she will never get pregnant again, in fact we had just got rid of pram which was boxed for about 15 years, she astonishingly became aware that she never had her normal periods for at least 11 weeks. We rushed to our doctor and conformed that she was nearly three months pregnant. I cannot explain in any mode the mixture of our behaviour to each other, I felt like a missile which was just been shot with joy ,my wife became speechless puzzled trying to figure out how she’s going to cope to be all of a sudden a mother again within 6 months time and not knowing the outcome, but at the end we ware fantastically becoming anxious every day counting that very very exceptional moment to become within a dream parents for the second time wow! Listen to this now. When God does answer directly to his creatures he really does it in a way not only to please himself, but also he will not let any doubt about his intervention within the hearths of all those who totally rely and trust him. I was installing a wardrobe when My wife phoned me and told me that she noticed the first sign of the water, I told her to remain in bed because it was still six or seven weeks premature .The old story. Frustrated and worried we rushed to hospital .As soon as we arrived they instructed me to go back since it was too early for the birth, and because of her past history, they were going to do their best to keep the baby as much as possible where it is. I went back to work, don’t ask me how, but in less than three hours ,I received a call to be at the hospital urgently. Went in and they prepared me to assist my wife as always to have her baby .The general atmosphere was far more excited than when I was to become a father for the first time. After a bit of a hustle a baby boy was born and the doctor was amazed as he never needed any artificial assistance notwithstanding the fact that he was at least 4 or 5 weeks premature. So My wife thanks God experienced definitely the quickest pregnancy of 20 weeks. The unexpected and mysterious way this child came into our life, brought in our home joy which could never be described in words. It was definitely God’s response to both of us.To me simply to realize that there ‘s no need for a lot of praying just that deep feeling within my hearth is enough He knows what it means, and to my wife knowing that she is not willing to become a mother through the proper 9 months process she became one like through a dream.Again I only realized God’s intervention 3 or 4 years ago.Yes humility and trust attached to Love within Jesus Christ Crucified for the love of God are the most vital for praying

  13. Regine–thanks for asking that–I’m wondering about that, too. I’m feeling the relief of “letting go” of trying to be holy because it’s impossible without Christ’s grace, thanks to another of Msr. Pope’s meditations, on prayer and the pharisee/taxpayer. (Thank you Father and thank you Jesus!) But in letting go, it seems like to continually ask is to pick up the burden again. Perhaps someone can shed some light on our confusion. Thank you!

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