December 8, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Second of two columns on prayers of petition

John F. Fink(Ninth in a series)

How, some people ask, could God possibly answer the prayers of all those people who are praying to him at the same time? Perhaps they visualize God handling one person’s request, and then moving on to another’s and on down the line until everybody is taken care of. How, they ask, could he have time to handle all those requests?

Of course, that question involves “time” and God is not in time. He’s in eternity. I suppose we could say that he has all the time he needs except that that answer contains the concept of time. Let’s say that he has all eternity to listen to all those prayers.

There’s still another objection to prayers of petition: Despite Jesus’ assurances that all our prayers will be heard, we don’t always get what we pray for. Everyone has probably prayed for something and believed that he or she would receive it, and then been disappointed.

My first reaction to that is amazement at the image of God that someone must have who demands that his or her prayer be heard. Is God just a servant waiting to do our bidding? Who’s the master and who’s the servant here? How dare we ask the awesome God for something, and then complain that he didn’t hear our prayer or perhaps that he heard it but ignored it!

Perhaps he heard it but knew in his infinite wisdom that what we asked for wouldn’t be good for us. He didn’t grant our request because of his love for us. He knows far better than we do what we truly need. Or perhaps he didn’t grant our request because to do so would mean refusing to answer someone else’s prayer, such as two athletic teams both praying for victory.

Or perhaps he didn’t grant our request because it was against his will. If we pray for a big promotion at work and don’t get it, maybe that is simply God’s will and we should accept it. Jesus didn’t get what he asked for in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed that God would take the cup away from him, but he did get the grace to carry out God’s will and accomplish his mission of redeeming the world. That’s another reason why we must always pray to be able to know what God wants.

In the final analysis, we should pray in faith for what we believe is best for us, but be willing to trust in God’s greater knowledge of what really is best. We can be sure that, if he doesn’t give us exactly what we pray for, he will give us something better.

You might be surprised, as I was, that the Catechism of the Catholic Church treats prayers of contrition as part of prayers of petition. It says, “The first movement of the prayer of petition is asking forgiveness, like the tax collector in the parable: ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’ It is a prerequisite for righteous and pure prayer” (#2631). †

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