Can We Stop Telling God What To Do?

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.