We flood the gates of heaven with prayers to get the new job that will really bolster the family finances; to seek a miraculous healing for the boy with cancer; to bring a wayward family member back to the faith. Yet after countless prayers offered with earnestness and fervor, we do not get what we were asking for. We wonder why. We are left dejected, frustrated, crushed. We may even feel the temptation to stop praying altogether.
After all, did not Jesus teach (and on more than one occasion) that God will give us what we ask for? “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) He proposed as a model for us the widow who seeks constantly after the judge to have her petition granted: “Will not God vindicate His elect, who cry to Him day and night?” (Luke 18:7) And just hours before undergoing his passion, Jesus solemnly instructed His apostles, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, He will give it to you in my name. . . .[A]sk, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24)
How, then, are we as Catholics to understand Jesus’ promise to us when, on occasion, it seems as if our prayers go answered?
As is so often the case, we have to understand these teachings of Jesus in tension with what He said and did elsewhere. So we turn to what was likely the most urgent prayer Jesus Himself ever offered: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
Here Jesus makes a direct request of the Father, yet, even in the depths of His agony, He is mindful that, for His request to be granted, it has to be in accord with the Father’s will. As Jesus taught on an earlier occasion, we are to pray that God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus’ petition to avoid His looming passion was not granted because God had a different plan, one that is almost beyond our comprehension: that the Son of God, who knew no sin, had to die an unspeakably painful death so that we sinners may live forever as adopted sons and daughters of God.
From Jesus’ own prayer at this pivotal moment we learn three things about our own petitionary prayer. First, to be granted, our petition must conform with God’s will, which is directed not necessarily toward our perceived present needs within the world, but for our own eternal salvation. What may seem essential to us in the moment may not be essential to arriving in heaven at some future moment. In acknowledging the priority of the Father’s will in His own prayer, Jesus teaches us that only God can see the full picture of salvation.
This leads directly to our second lesson: When we petition God, we are placing our trust in His divine omnipotence. When our petitions do not turn out as we desired, we must make the more difficult act of trusting His divine omniscience: that He knows better than we what we need.
Making this act of trust can be exceedingly difficult, especially when an urgent request seemingly goes unanswered. Our only recourse is to unite ourselves with Jesus on the Cross, at the very moment when His unwanted chalice was consuming Him: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1-2)
But when we pray this psalm to the end, we find not an abandonment of God, but a recommitment to Him that we must struggle to make our own: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations.” (27-28)
From this we receive our third lesson: Our lives, in imitation of our Lord’s own, are never without suffering. So often our most sincere prayers are born of intense suffering. We pray to be delivered from that evil, but we must be mindful that the suffering we are praying to avoid – like Jesus’ own passion – may, for reasons we will never understand in this life, be the means God chose for our salvation.
Does this make Jesus’ promise about our petitions being granted disingenuous? No. To petition the Father for anything is to seek salvation from this or that predicament; He grants what leads to our ultimate salvation. Unable to see this distinction for ourselves, we must petition God with a sincere, radical trust that He will grant our request, even if we may not receive exactly what we want. For without faith, without trust, our requests will go unfulfilled, as the apostles discovered when they failed to drive out a demon because of their little faith. (Matthew 17:18-20)
Hence when it comes to prayer, we see the importance of another exhortation from Jesus: “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Like children petitioning their parents, so must we petition our Father in heaven, for our salvation requires that we love unconditionally Him who can do all things.
*Image: The Grotto of the Agony (La Grotte de l’agonie) by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]. At the museum’s website, it is possible to expand the image [click on DOWNLOAD and then the image to expand] and see that Tissot’s angels hold not only the cup that that will not pass but also images of the Passion to come.