What We Do When We Pray

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

What is prayer for? Why do we do it? What does it mean to pray? As Christians, we know we should do it every day. But what does it accomplish, really?

My favorite definition of prayer comes from St. John Damascene. It’s quoted in the Catechism: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC 2559). I like this definition because it’s very doable! We can think about God (mind) and desire God (heart) any time, whether at work, play or rest, which makes it possible to fulfill the command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).

But if prayer is just being mindful of God, then what do we make of this Sunday’s readings? Jesus seems to suggest that if we pray persistently enough (like the man knocking at his neighbor’s door asking for bread), God will give us anything we ask for.

“And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you. 
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Lk 11:9-10

Does this mean God will give us whatever we want if we just pray hard enough? That’s not my experience, or the experience of any Christian I know. Often we conceive of prayer in the wrong way. We want prayer to work like a vending machine. You put in your money, you press the button, and you get your snack. It’s a mechanical operation.

Or we approach prayer like a contractual negotiation. God, if you do this for me, then I’ll do this for you.

But our relationship with God is not mechanical and it is not contractual. It is covenential. A covenant is more than a contract. A contract is a legal agreement. But a covenant is a relationship.

Our Father

The image Jesus gives us of God when he teaches us how to pray is not that of a vending machine or a contract lawyer, but a Father. “When you pray, say: Father…” (Lk 11:2). Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God. But God has many adopted sons and daughters. This is because all of us united with Christ share in Christ’s sonship. Therefore we have the great blessing of knowing God as our Father.

“What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

Lk 11:11-13

Just as fathers know to give good things to their children, our heavenly Father knows what we need. He knows what is good for us. This does not mean he’s going to give us whatever we ask for. Only bad fathers indulge their children this way, because it spoils them. And God is not a bad father!

Jesus asks what father would give his son a scorpion when he asks for an egg. But what about the child who asks for the scorpion? Just because the child thinks he wants something doesn’t mean it’s good. We frequently ask for “scorpions” in prayer — things we think we want, but really are bad for us.

The lesson here is that we can trust our Father in heaven to always give us what we need for our good — not that he will always give us what we want. God doesn’t spoil his children.

The Purpose of Prayer

Which brings us back to the question: what are we doing when we pray? One thing we are NOT doing is attempting to “change God’s mind” about something. God’s mind is perfect. It cannot be changed. So if the purpose of prayer is not to change God, it must be to change us.

When Abraham prayed to God to spare Sodom for the sake of ten innocent people (Gen 18:20-32), he was not convincing God to do anything God did not already desire to do. So why did God respond to Abraham’s prayer? Because by praying for the good of the people, Abraham was exhibiting a God-like trait. He was showing mercy and compassion. His prayer made him more like God, and allowed him to cooperate in God’s work. God could have spared the people of Sodom without Abraham’s intercession, but he allowed Abraham to help bring this good work about, much the same way that fathers delight in allowing their children to help them work. This is how their children learn.

Remember our definition of prayer: to raise your mind and heart to God. By directing our reason and our will toward God, we move in God’s direction. We draw closer to him and become more like him. We are transformed. We are made divine.

Think of yourself as being in a car. Your mind (reason) is the steering wheel. It points the car where you want to go. Your heart (will) is the gas pedal. It motivates you and moves you forward. Where are you going? If you steer your car toward Cullowhee, NC, and press the gas pedal, you will come closer to Cullowhee. And if you steer your mind and heart toward God, you will come closer to God. That’s what prayer is all about.

Prayer is more than telling God what we want. It’s learning from God what we need. It’s learning from God what is true and good and beautiful. It’s learning how to cooperate with God’s grace and mercy. Through prayer, we engage in a relationship that makes us more like God, just as children imitate their parents.

This doesn’t mean we can’t ask God for what we want. (The very word pray means “to ask”). But it does mean we need to listen and pay attention to how God answers. God answers our prayers in the events and circumstances of our lives; in the people we meet and encounters we have; in the scriptures and spiritual readings we do; in the still, small voice that comes to us in the silence. And he often answers our prayers in surprising ways — most of the time when God tells us “no” it’s because we are asking for too little.

By listening to God in prayer, we will learn to desire what is truly good. If you become a Master of Prayer, you will obtain your every desire, because you will have learned to desire only what is pleasing to God.