If God is all-good, all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why should we pray? Wouldn’t it be better to only offer prayers of thanksgiving or praise? If we pray for someone or for something, are we not assuming we can change God’s mind and that to change His mind means there’s something lacking in His divine providence?
Questions such as these arise in many human hearts. Jesus addresses it in this passage and points us toward some reasons we ought to pray, and more boldly, to pray for specific intentions. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas addressed these questions as well in the Summa Theologica (II.II.Q.83) Newadvent.org and offers some clear questions and answers for us to contemplate.
In article 2, “Whether it is becoming to pray,” he addresses this objection:
|Objection 1: It would seem that it is unbecoming to pray. Prayer seems to be necessary in order that we may make our needs known to the person to whom we pray. But according to Matthew 6:32, “Your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things.” Therefore it is not becoming to pray to God.”|
This seems like a valid argument and even cites Scripture. If God knows what I need anyway, and certainly He knows it better than me, why should I pray at all? I myself have felt a little silly at times praying for intentions as I imagined God saying, “I know this already, move on.”
Yet, Jesus instructs us to pray for our daily bread (Matthew 6:11), to call out to God day and night (Luke 18:7), that whatever we ask in prayer shall be given to us (MT 18:19, MT 21:22, MK 11:24JN 14:13, JN 15:7 and many more). Moreover, St. Paul says to pray without ceasing (1 Timothy 5:17). So why does God want us to pray for things if He already knows our needs?
Aquinas’ response provides insight for us:
|“Reply to Objection 1. We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to Him our needs or desires but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters.”|
First, we pray because we need to see the connection between our needs and God’s provisions. If we don’t pray, we often take God’s gifts for granted or assume they resulted merely from chance, good luck, or our own efforts. Through prayer, especially through persevering prayer, our disposition changes and we realize our total reliance on God’s graciousness.
Secondly, because of the transformative effect petitioning God can have on our faith and our relationship with God, sometimes God wills that something happens only if we pray for it. Aquinas puts it this way: “Divine providence disposes not only what effects shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed.” (II.II.Q.83A.2)
Aquinas points out that God’s divine providence desires not only certain good effects, but the prior causes of those effects as well. In other words, part of God’s plan for providing, may include someone having prayed for it first. Thus, He may provide a particular thing only if you pray for it because He wills that it be caused by your prayers!
If we ought to pray, then for what should we pray and for what shouldn’t we pray? For example, early in my faith journey I was surprised at how God answered prayers and I noticed something. I usually prayed for a particular solution to a problem, whereas God saw the problem itself and provided a much more creative and profound solution than I could have imagined. As a result, I try to refine my prayers of petition to presenting the problem to the Lord and trusting in Him to provide the resolution rather than telling God how it ought to be solved. Thus, my faith deepens as I see Him at work in His way rather than merely a response to my requested logistics.
Aquinas offers insights into a couple of common questions in this regard that are helpful. In Article 5 he presents this objection: “Now according to Romans 8:26, “we know not what we should pray for as we ought.” Therefore we ought not to ask for anything definite when we pray” (Obj.1). The objector in this case cites Scripture correctly but draws the wrong conclusion. It’s true that our prayers are often misguided, like my earlier example. Nevertheless, as Aquinas points out, Scripture also says, that the Holy Spirit will enable us to pray as we ought. He writes, “Although man cannot by himself know what he ought to pray for, “the Spirit,” as stated in the same passage, “helpeth our infirmity,” since by inspiring us with holy desires, He makes us ask for what is right. Hence our Lord said (John 4:24) that true adorers “must adore . . . in spirit and in truth“”(Reply 1)
God is a patient and kind guide. He accepts the true prayers of our hearts no matter how bungled the words we use to express them. In addition, the more we invite the Holy Spirit to direct our prayer, the deeper and more authentic our prayers become.
In Article 6, Aquinas tackles the even harder question of whether we ought to pray for temporal things, i.e. the needs of our earthly well-being. He makes an insightful distinction between prayers for our needs verses disordered wants, “order” being the key word. When it comes to praying for specific things we ought to petition God, but to have them appropriately prioritized. For example, of highest importance would be those needs relevant to the salvation our souls, the souls of those we love, and the advancement of God’s kingdom. Next in order would be our daily needs – food, clothing, shelter, friendship, etc. Last would be our wants (for example, “If you feel like treating me Lord,_____would be awesome!”)
Prayer is not a letter to Santa. It’s not a childish wish list. Prayer is relational. We converse with God and deepen our relationship as our loving Father listens to our needs and provides for them. We converse with the saints and with each other as we unite in prayer before the Lord for a petition. Thus we see the beauty of the Christian family and experience a deepening of unity with the people of God as we rely on each other’s prayers as well as our own. God wills our good, and He also wills at times for that good to come through prayer. As a mother I often anticipate my children’s needs, but I appreciate when they humbly ask and acknowledge the connection between their need and my generosity. God loves us dearly and provides so many things for which we never even asked or dreamed. Yet, He desires to partner with us and to bring about good through our cooperating efforts both in action and in prayer and sacrifice.
- Have you ever tried to struggle with something on your own for a long time before finally asking God for help? Were you surprised at how quickly He helped you once you asked?
- Pray to the Lord for the needs of your soul. What sins do you need His grace to overcome? What virtues do you desire to grow? What desires would you like the Lord to give you?
- Pray to the Lord for the needs of the souls of those you love. With what are they struggling? Where do they need conversion? What holy desires do they need from the Holy Spirit?
- Pray for the needs of the souls of you enemies. Pray for conversion in their hearts and gifts of grace. Pray for blessings in their lives.
- Pray for your needs – material, physical, emotional, relational.
- Pray for your wants from a spirit of joy in God’s generosity.
Make a Resolution (Practical Application):
- Make a prayer intention list in your prayer journal. Write the date or make a check mark next to the ones He answers. (remember some might be answered soon others may require time and perseverance)
- Pray a prayer of surrender each day to God’s divine providence and openness to what surprises He may send you.