Allowing God to teach us to pray

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Our ultimate goal must be that our desires become one with God’s desires

Like Abraham, we all do our share of bargaining with God. (see Genesis 18) Like Jacob, we do our share of wrestling with God. (see Genesis 32) Like Jonah, we do our share of running from God. (see Jonah 1) Like Peter, we do our share of denying God. (see Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22) And like Thomas, we do our share of doubting him. (see John 20)

At times we are quite conscious of bargaining, wrestling, running, denying or doubting; a day of distraction or a night of tossing and turning might be the result. But at other times we engage in these exercises without giving them a second thought, as a flood of words or thoughts streams through our minds when we pray. This is our way of trying to figure things out (or avoid figuring them out) in the presence of God. It’s the most natural thing in the world, and needless to say, God is used to it.

Power in weakness
For example, it’s natural for us to offer a solution to God when facing a dilemma. “If only you will do such-and-such, God, things will be OK.” Afflicted by what he called a “thorn in the flesh,” St. Paul prayed for resolution. “Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me.” (2 Corinthians 12:8)

Paul did not reveal the nature of his painful thorn, but he wanted to be rid of it, and he prayed to that end. The answer God gave was surprising. “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:8) The thorn was not to be taken away, and Paul learned a powerful lesson: that God’s grace reveals its power and beauty when we humbly receive him in utter weakness. Paul might never have learned this lesson — to the contrary, he might have persisted in the illusion of his own strength — had God not allowed this jab at his pride.

Perhaps building on this experience, Paul also wrote that we do not know how to pray as we ought. (see Romans 8:26) In his case, he had prayed for the removal of a thorn that God knew would be helpful to him. At times we pray for things we wrongfully judge to be good for us when in fact they would not be, we pray for only a little when God wants to give us a lot, we pray for a quick fix when God wants to heal us.

Our inability to pray as we ought is not cause for discouragement. In a sense, it is another helpful thorn in the flesh. Paul writes, “In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” (Romans 8:26)

God wills what is best
There is no reason to fear when we seem to hit a roadblock in prayer, for the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. Our sight is conditioned by what we know and experience, but the Holy Spirit knows and sees all things with eternal clarity. He prays in us and for us, that we might grow in our desire for what is truly right for us and for those for whom we pray. The Spirit “intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.” (Romans 8:27)

In a letter to Proba, St. Augustine wrote: “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.’”

Our ultimate goal is that our desires become one with God’s desires. To the extent that our bargaining, wrestling and running are manifestations of our denying and doubting, we are still in need of conversion, still in need of growing in trust that God wills only what is best for us. The Spirit prays that our sight will be lengthened and our hearts stretched, and God’s grace strengthens us in patient waiting.

In the meantime, we pray, “God, teach me to want what you want. Amen.”

When our wills are one with his, we are at peace.

Northwest Catholic - October 2014

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.