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Can We Stop Telling God What To Do? Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 11 August 2011

Plato thought intercessory prayer was ridiculous. If God is all-good, then trying to get Him to change His mind or treat you differently is to ask Him to do something less than fully just, which is contrary to God’s nature. Christ, however, instructed us to pray and to ask for what we need. And as much as I admire Plato, I’ll side with Christ every time.

By the same token, Plato does have a point. Should we really be telling God what to do? The Bible, too, makes it clear that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and that He knows better than we do what is good for us. Asking for help is one thing; giving advice on the best way for God to help is another thing altogether.  

Which is why I’m often made uncomfortable by the current fashion in the intercessory “Prayers of the Faithful” during Mass – when it includes specific instructions on how God should help us. The practice, as you’ll probably recognize, goes something like this: “For a resolution of the conflict in the Middle East, that God will make all sides recognize that peace is more in their interest than continued fighting.” Or: “For the homeless and alienated in society, including those who are alienated due to their sexual orientation, that God may help us to realize their infinite dignity and treat them with respect and recognize their rights in society.”

Now look, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever praying for either peace in the Middle East or homeless people and gay people. But I’m troubled by the fact that our “that” clauses run on so long, we end up praying for no more than about four or five groups, and usually only those that happen to have shown up in the mainstream media that morning. In my parish, we used to pray for Haiti all the time until countries in the Middle East started rebelling, and now we pray for Libya and Syria. The poor Haitians don’t seem to need our prayers any more because they’re not on the front page of The New York Times, which is odd because I don’t think everything is all better there.


          There’s no need to tell God how best to help

I’ve been to traditional Byzantine-rite liturgies where the intercessions go on for five minutes and where they ask God’s blessing on everybody from political leaders to farmers to factory workers to artists to mothers and fathers to children to. . .well, you name it. It’s a long list. But they have the time because they don’t generally get into the business of telling God what to do. They don’t say, for example: “For children, that they may come to a better appreciation of the wisdom of their parents.” Or: “For members of Congress, that they may more faithfully listen to the voices of their constituents.” No, they tend to just pray and let God decide what’s best.

It’s not only that I don’t want to be in the theologically awkward position of telling God what to do, it’s also the case that I don’t want to be in the socially awkward (and politically annoying) position of being assaulted in Mass with the latest politically-correct fad dressed up as a prayer. Many such intercessions aren’t really directed at “God” at all, but at the people in the congregation. When someone prays: “For those who are alienated due to their sexual orientation, that we may fully recognize their rights in society,” that’s not really a request to God, it’s a political statement. “God” has scarcely anything to do with it. 

Notice that such “prayers” rarely involve direct address: “Help us, O Lord, to see your truth and walk in your ways.” Rather, they involve talking about God in the third person as though He weren’t really present. Then there are intercessions that leave out God altogether: “That we may make a greater use of alternative fuels and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.” Is that a prayer, or a plank in a political platform?

For some intercessions, especially those that come from the congregation, it’s hard to know whether I can actually say “Amen” to them. What to do when someone prays “For greater respect among Catholics for sexual freedom?” With regard to all such prayers, I generally just say a silent prayer to this effect: “O Lord, I have no idea what that even means, but please help us in the way we need to be helped.” 

And wouldn’t that make more sense? God does know us better than we know ourselves, and He does know how best to help us. Moral exhortations are best left for the homily and political statements are best left to politicians. And for heaven’s sakes (and ours), let’s address Him as though He is actually present. But above all, let’s remember, there’s no need to tell God how best to help. He’s been at it for quite a while, after all.

 
Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
 
 
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Comments (28)Add Comment
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written by James Findlayson, August 11, 2011
Fr Jerome Bertram talks about 2 errors in prayer in his book, 'Jesus, Help Us to Pray'.
The one you mention is the first of them. The second, is trying to manipulate God to receive some sort of subjective 'inner experience', popular with many modernist spiritual directors and dissenting nuns - well, you get the picture... :)
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written by Richard A, August 11, 2011
I'll confess it; once in a while I'll respond to one of the intentions with "Lord, DON'T hear that prayer."
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written by debby, August 11, 2011
Amen, brother! sometimes i even have a hard time praying for "world peace" since that line seems to fly in the face of what Christ Himself told us, "In this world, you will not have peace...." along with "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword..." i do not add my voice to those prayers either. unfortunately with my a.d.d. brain, as soon as that kind of intention is mentioned a picture john lennon's droning "imagine" assaults me. i parry with humor by "visualizing whirled peas" and hope i can add my, "Lord, hear our prayer" to the next public intention....
in the kind of Protestantism i was raised in, i was taught both from the pulpit and Christian school teachers that Catholics are in direct disobedience to Jesus because they (now we) pray like the Pharisees; use many words repeatedly in public and mark ourselves with ashes to show the world we are fasting (you know the Gospel where Jesus says, "wash your face and pray in your closet"). when i first became a Roman Catholic i was intensely nervous about the whole rosary devotion. then i learned from some very holy older women the difference between saying the rosary and praying the mysteries of the rosary. once i began to pray that devotion often, i noticed a paradigm shift within my heart: i no longer told Jesus how He should take care of all these people and problems and me! i mentioned their names and moved on to ponder His life lived here in this valley, His salvation offered to all, His touching and healing and bleeding and rising and the Victory at the great Assumption and Coronation! Her going before us drawing into union in Heaven as it was on Earth, body and soul, WILL one day BE ME & HIM because of HIS love and grace and mercy and PLAN. i discovered the meaning of "I AM THE WAY..."
now whenever i hear my Protestant family pray and go on and on and on with so many words i understand that they are convincing themselves that He is paying attention to them, but is the whole "turning my life over to God as i Know Him and trusting Him" happening? isn't this one of the great crisis of faith so many experience when "my prayers where not answered?" Look at our own dear Grump. he lost his faith; his prayers, his intention, plan, way, was not followed by the Almighty. How much better to leave everything, counting it as worthless, and press on the gain Christ and His plan, His way, His life within us and all we love?
please pray for me dear brothers and sisters. i am praying for you- esp my dear grump and holy mother louise. often achilles, anneaes, other joe, many others who comment, the writers, and now amber come to my heart at Mass. St. Clare, pray for us! in Love in Him!
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written by Emina Melonic, August 11, 2011
Professor Smith, this was simply brilliantly written!
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written by Titus, August 11, 2011
"I’ve been to traditional Byzantine-rite liturgies"

If I'm not mistaken, the Byzantines solve this problem by having fixed intercessory litanies for certain purposes and holy days. The Latin Rite would benefit immensely from this: let Rome write an assortment of intercessory litanies that can be used as the occasion warrants. But please, Lord, preserve us (however You so choose), from the prayers of the faithful.
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written by Martinkus, August 11, 2011
Amen! (This parenthetical comment is only added because without it I received the message that my comment was too short.)

Again I say, Amen!
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written by Grump, August 11, 2011
As one whose prayers have never gotten higher than the ceiling in 40+ years of making requests and asking for help for myself and others, I am reminded by Kierkegaard's comment about prayer: "Prayer doesn't change God, but it changes us." Which in my case is true since it has made me an unbeliever.

When Jesus said, 'Ask anything in my name and it shall be done.' I took Him at His word. I'm still waiting for Him to keep it.
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written by Vanessa, August 11, 2011
Excellent, Dr. Smith!
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written by chatto, August 11, 2011
@ Titus, to a certain extent, those intercessions already exist. Our parish priest (who's half Ukranian Rite as well!), has taken to using the intercessions from the Divine Office from Lauds on the day of the Mass.
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written by Amy (Laschon) Wolfe , August 11, 2011
Dr. Smith,

Go to the TLM and you won't have to worry about this! There is a new parish opening up on the NW side of Houston (run by the FSSP) soon that will only offer the "extraordinary" form of the Mass, so you don't have to concern yourself with worrisome insertions into the liturgy.

Best,
Amy
UST 2005
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written by David Philippart, August 11, 2011
Professor Smith, you're correct about the problem with using "that" in intercessory prayers. My favorite bad example remains the sample intercessions that would come from the chancery and begin, "That we might be generous to the second collection for....we pray to the Lord!"

Your point about direct address is a little off, however. The minister (deacon or reader) isn't supposed to speak to God, the gathered church is. So the minister speaks to the church and proposes the focus of the intention, "For the church. . ." concluding with this imperative, again addressed to the people, "let us pray to the Lord," or "we pray to the Lord." It is then that the people and ministers together that directly address God, "Lord, hear our prayer!" "Lord, have mercy!" The best examples of intercessory prayer in the Roman rite are those in the liturgy for Good Friday, even though these are a bit lengthier than they would otherwise be, as they are for the second day of the Paschal Triduum.

The offering of intercessory prayers in liturgical worship is one of the most important things that baptized people do. That is why is the early church, catechumens (those not yet baptized) were blessed and dismissed from the synaxis after the homily and before the intercessions. Besides not yet able to receive communion, those not yet baptized were not yet invited to pray on behalf of the world and church or share the pax. These are priestly actions reserved to the baptized. The lack of such intercessory prayers, and the exclusion of the laity from the pax, are serious deficiencies of the "TLM." They are not "worrisome insertions" or praying like the Pharisees.
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written by Robert, August 11, 2011
You are so right! The intercessions as used in the old breviary were much better. They presented the need in more general terms and let God decide what to do and how - you know: from earthquakes, protect us O Lord.
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written by Achilles, August 11, 2011
Thank you so much for this down to earth explanation. In my liberal parish I am often struck, by about 50% of the intercessory prayers, that they are political and fad driven. I pause and am skeptical. I feel pangs of irreverence and guilt that to those prayers I give a half hearted Amen if I give one at all, but they really are awkward and I think ultimately irreverent in themselves. Thank you for the alternative prayer, that will help.
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written by Julie, August 11, 2011
I had to really come to terms with that at church because it was a real distraction from the Mass. I left upset at the liberal agenda being pushed at the MASS! Thanks for this post.
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written by MarieT, August 11, 2011
Dr. Smith,
You are right on the mark. I find myself thinking "let's see what they are going to come up with today..." especially since I am a lector and have to read the intercessory prayers every once in a while (sometimes wishing I could skip over some). I am a Maronite but we don't have Maronite churches in the area. In the Maronite rite, the intercessory prayers are just like what you described in the Byzantine rite- also like the ones on Good Friday in the Latin rite (for everyone so they tend to be long). The response is not "Lord hear our prayer" but "Lord have mercy" "ya rab irham"
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written by Amos, August 12, 2011
From the King's soliloquy in Hamlet, the prayer is right to the point.

"For what's in a prayer but this two fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardoned being down "

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written by John F, August 12, 2011
Well, I'm going to partially disagree with this commentary. I can readily agree that some intercessions seem to have more relation to politics than prayer. Sometimes they seem as though the author..doesn't entirely understand Catholic faith.

I must say though, I don't mind a bit of specificity in prayer. Seems to me that we're not precisely handling the problem quite properly here. Instead of praying about "ensuring that we honor the rights of xxx group", if we'd pray that all persons would more thoroughly investigate, contemplate, and assent to the various teachings the Church has to offer, that could accomplish quite a bit of good.

I don't care too much for intercessory prayers that name an issue, but don't make any particular request. I've heard prayers asking God to grant wisdom to political leadership; well intentioned, but it seems to forget something: They already HAVE ample wisdom! They've got too much! It'd make more sense if they'd ask God to challenge leaders to consider problems with a Catholic mind. Granted, even that would still create ample dispute, but at least it'd ask for something that could be accomplished.

As for the problem related to following the headlines, well, you've got one problem or the other. You can completely ignore world events, thus offering prayers that half the congregation may find wholly irrelevant. OR, you can pay too much attention to the headlines, thereby making half the congregation wonder if you're going to offer a pitch for someone's political rally during the announcements at the end. (Granted, that last has never happened when I've been about, but you catch my thought, I hope.)

So while I agree that some intercessions need to be rethought, I think they could be offered more appropriately and still be specific.
Otherwise, we may as well not bother with intercessions.

BTW, when I took a doctrine class a loooong time ago, I learned the Church DOES have guideline for what should be offered. Usually they want to offer something for the world, something for the Church, and possibly something for the parish/diocese. In any case, fairly short, but fairly understandable works best.
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written by tom loos, August 12, 2011
My daily prayer life consists of the Holy Rosary, and a few protection of family and friends. It leaves me peaceful enough to trust that God is handling things his way, and that as a mere mortal being, I've done all I can do in this life.
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written by Sandmama, August 12, 2011
At our local parish we were forever offering "THAT" prayers for political and social issues. A new priest replaced the pastor this year and now the intercessory prayers focus nearly entirely on the sick and the dead. On Memorial Day weekend we prayed for the repose of the souls of all war dead, everywhere. What a breath of fresh air. Our church again feels like a sanctuary (from this and other alterations) rather than all about someone's personal political agenda.
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written by Cindy, August 12, 2011
Nice article, but the problem is not the "that" clause. The problem is what follows the "that." When we pray this way: Pray for us O Holy Mother of God, that WE may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. The New Church likes to pray "that God may do blah, blah, blah" WRONG. Pre-Vatican II Church: We asked for help to become Holy and sanctified. Post-Vatican II Church: We pray for God to do what we think is necessary or right. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for us that WE may open our eyes before it is too late. Pray for us, that we may bear God's wrath with humility and penitence.
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written by Jason, August 12, 2011
Find a Tridentine Mass and stay there. Problem solved.
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written by Kenneth Covington, August 12, 2011
Randy:

And there are the prayer battles. Do you remember this one, in the old chapel at UD in '82 or '83, during the prayer of the faithful?

Visiting hippie girl: "That the United States will stop terrorizing other countries with weapons in space."

Pause.

UD Student: "For the conversion of Russia."

Kenneth
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written by mortimerzilch, August 12, 2011
Hey GRUMP, what are you praying for? God moves his arm, if we move our finger....maybe it's something you had to do your part on, and didn't. Maybe it was something that was not good for you or whomever. I did see a poll of Catholics recently in which 81 i;dn't believe prayer made any difference. Christ prayed. He prayed with loud cries and groans, according to his disciples who overheard, and told the Evangelist. Jesus portrayed his own mother (I like to think) as the widow how harassed the unjust judge for Justice, and got what she was asking for because she never let up. GRUMP, I think you need to be more like Job of the Bible, and admit that maybe, just maybe, you are failing in some important aspect of prayer. Pray like the tax collector did: "God, have mercy on me a sinner."
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written by HV Observer, August 12, 2011
If I were a bishop, I would order all parishes to have a standardized set of "bidding prayers," as our Anglican colleagues call it. The set I would send them would be "Intercession I" from the Anglican Use Order of Mass, which reads as follows:

Intercession I

The Celebrant says,

Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church and the world.

The Celebrant, Deacon, or other minister continues,

Almighty and everliving God, who in thy holy Word hast taught us to make prayers, and supplications, and to give thanks for all men: Receive these our prayers which we offer unto thy divine Majesty, beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord; and grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.

Give grace, O heavenly Father, to N. our Pope, N. our bishop and to all bishops and other ministers, that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy Sacraments.

And to all thy people give thy heavenly grace, and especially to this congregation here present; that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear and receive thy holy Word, truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.

We beseech thee also so to rule the hearts of those who bear the authority of government in this and every land, that they may be led to wise decisions and right actions for the welfare and peace of the world.

Open, O Lord, the eyes of all people to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works, that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, they may honor thee with their substance, and be faithful stewards of thy bounty.

And we most humbly beseech thee, of thy goodness, O Lord, to comfort and succor all those who, in this transitory life, are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.

And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, beseeching thee to be merciful and grant them fullness of joy in thy love and service; and to grant us grace so to follow the good examples of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all thy saints, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.

The Celebrant concludes,

Grant these our prayers, O Father, for Jesus Christ's sake, our only Mediator and Advocate.
R. Amen.
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written by James Hughes, August 12, 2011
Great article. I still like to ask god for specific things like getting my marriage to work and my kids to go to mass. I am sure he takes care of things anyway but hopefully it reminds him I still care . I hope he doesn't think I am bossing him about.
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written by Drusilla, August 12, 2011
@HV Observer, thank you so much. Those are the prayers that are not being prayed @ the Anglican Use Parish of which I'm a member. Perhaps they are not allowed but at least I can ask.

@Grump, "No" is a viable answer. Often, it's the best answer too.
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written by Bethanie Ryan, August 12, 2011
I love your comment in regards to Byzantine liturgies. It would be better for us to pray for everyone rather than spending time telling God what to do.
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written by debby, August 14, 2011
Whoa HV! What beauty and humility in these intercessions! I wonder how many people would understand what they are agreeing to.....but who on earth could disagree with a single one? Thank you for posting this.

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