A former student texted me with this question: “We ask God for things that we want to happen, but we also want to surrender to Him. So how do these two work together?”
I texted back: “God’s smart that way.”
This was not exactly a theologically sophisticated answer, but in my defense, I’m terrible at texting. I can never hit all the right letters when I’m trying to punch those darn little buttons. So I thought this was probably the best I could do in a text.
I prefer in-person conversations. When people ask questions like this, there’s usually something else going on. The proper response is: “That’s a very good question, but before we talk about it, what’s really your question?” As C. S. Lewis once suggested, difficulties of faith are more often due to a lack of sleep than the result of serious rational objections. And as it turned out, my student was suffering from tonsillitis.
None of that makes her question any less reasonable. I get asked it a lot, actually, and people have been asking it, or something like it, for centuries. Plato, for example, thought prayer was irrational. If God or the gods are “all good,” then they will do what is good no matter what we ask them. So asking is superfluous. A similar problem arises for Christians. If what God wills for us is always good, why do we pray for things? If they’re good and God wants us to have them, He will give them. If they’re not good, He won’t. So why ask?
My student texted back: “But if I am totally surrendered to God, I shouldn’t be asking for things, should I?”
“God’s smart that way” hadn’t done the trick, it seemed, and knowing this spirited, determined young woman as I did, I suspected saying “be patient and wait until we can talk” wouldn’t be satisfactory either. So, still not wanting to text much, I wrote: “Jesus said you should ask for things you need. So maybe you should listen to Him because He probably knows what He’s talking about, being God and all.”
This too was not sophisticated theology or inspired apologetics, but it’s not so different from God’s response to Peter at the Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son. . . .Listen to Him!”
My student reported she was still confused. So I persisted: “So, on the one hand, there’s you wondering whether you should pray for things you need, and on the other hand, there’s God Incarnate who in multiple places in the Scriptures tells us that we should keep knocking on the door and asking for what we need. Who are you going to trust?”
After a pause, she wrote: “So I am supposed to be totally surrendered to His will and also ask for stuff – not living life passively?” This is the nice thing about the Holy Spirit when you’re teaching. It’s just when you’re too lazy to do a good job or don’t know what to say that the Holy Spirit steps in and helps students figure things out for themselves.
For some reason, God seems to want us to surrender to His will and also ask for things, “not living life passively.” He wants us to cooperate with His grace. He isn’t merely pulling our strings like a puppeteer. He doesn’t work in us without us. His goal is to transform us. And for this to happen, we need to cooperate with Him and do our part.
This is perhaps easier to see when we’re dealing with others. When I discovered that my young friend was ill, I wrote: “So am I not supposed to pray for you to get better using the same reasoning? You pray for other people for the things they need. Is that stupid?”
“Good point,” she wrote back. “But praying for others seems very different from praying for myself.” Well, yes, it might seem that way, but is it really so different? The commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. If you can see no reason to pray for yourself, how long before you no longer can find a reason to pray for others?
It seems as though God wants us to realize that we’re “in this together.” I am reminded of the way the late, great Fr. James Schall used to say, as he was leaving: “Pray for me, and I’ll pray for you!” God knows what our friends and loved ones need before we ask, but we still pray for them.
Consider Abraham, who “bargained” with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, getting Him down from fifty good men to ten. What can we say other than God seems to like people like that – people who believe in Him enough to treat Him like a person and not a philosophical idea; people with the courage to stand up for things that are important and make their case; people with enough faith that He can do good things to actually ask Him.
When we don’t ask, is it because we’re submitting to His will or because, deep down, we’re afraid that God is so transcendent, He just doesn’t (or can’t) intervene in the clock-like workings of the world, like the clock-maker who can’t interfere with the mechanical working of his clock. That’s a very reasonable view. But you can’t hold it and accept the reality of the Incarnation. The God of the Scriptures is not especially timid about intervening in human history.
There are no doubt good arguments for petitionary prayer that involve a more sophisticated understanding of divine governance. But in the end, most of us will probably fall back on: “Jesus told you to keep knocking at the door, and He probably knows what He’s talking about.” We ask God for things we want to happen, but we also want to surrender to Him. How do these two work together?
What can I say? God’s smart that way. He works it out.
*Image: Saint Peter in Prayer  by Matthias Stom, c. 1633-1640 [National Museum in Warsaw, Poland]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Praying to an Abstract God 
Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s Three Lessons on Prayer