Someone wrote to me: Men usually pray when they are defeated. And with defeat comes fear, despair, absence of faith. I am also guilty of this. I think that praying with a definite purpose, faith, with a joyful and grateful heart is the only way to transmute desires into their material equivalent. What are your thoughts on this? Thank you. JPP
JPP – I think you have some good insights. If we only pray when we feel we NEED something, we completely misunderstand the role and purpose of prayer. We should not wait until we are “defeated” (to use your words) or desperate or hopeless to reach out to God in prayer [we CAN reach out to God in these moments but we should not wait until we reach rock bottom!]. I agree that we should pray “with a definite purpose” and we must know what this purpose of prayer is for it to be most effective in our lives. As for your last comment, I may be misunderstanding you, but it seems that you suggest that the end result of prayer is to get material benefits – for our earthly desires to be fulfilled. (Is this correct?) If this is what you intended to suggest, I think that this misses the mark of why we pray. In order to best answer your question, let me first discuss what exactly we mean by prayer.
Too often people view prayer as simply asking God for things that “I want” or think “I need” or asking God for something that “I think someone else needs”. This form of prayer is called asking God for our intentions or for our petitions (when I ask for my petitions I am asking God for things regarding myself, when I offer God intercessions I am asking for help for others). Petitions and intercessions should be a part of our prayer life when needed but in reality these requests should not be the dominant component of prayer.
Prayer is the means by which we grow in our relationship with God! Prayer is not simply an act of the mind. It is not a mental exercise where we empty ourselves like in Buddhism. It is not a magic ritual where we seek power or benefits from another being like in paganism. Christian prayer is where we enter into conversion with God and we are led to a deeper and deeper relationship with Him!
We can compare prayer to a marital relationship between a man and a woman. If a husband and wife rarely spoke, only occasionally side ‘hi’ to each other, never grew in their knowledge of who the other person truly is, what kind of relationship would they have? More than that, if they only times the husband and wife spoke was when they needed something from the other person, how strong would this relationship be? As with every marriage there are times of great joy, times of sadness and times of struggles. What if the spouses only reached out to talk to each other during the hard times and never spoke during the times of joy and happiness? How much love is being expressed in a relationship like this? None! These actions would result in a sad, fruitless relationship!
With God, He is the perfect spouse. He is always reaching out to us wanting to have conversations, wanting us to come to know Him more deeply, wanting us to rejoice with Him as well as share our struggles with Him. It is true God wants to help us always, but we also should not simply see Him as the one to whom we turn only in times of need! God loves us unconditionally and wants us to love Him in return. God desires to have a deep relationship with every single human person! Prayer is how we enter into this relationship with God while here on earth. Prayer is an intimate encounter with God. Prayer is an expression of the love we have for God.
It is important for us to recognize that God, the Supreme Being and Creator, does not need anything. When God created humanity, it was not out of necessity or need – this was an act of pure love. God loves us and wants us to be united to Him for eternity. God wants to give us eternal happiness, joy, peace and love. God does not need our love BUT God does desire us to love Him and to be with Him forever in heaven. At the same time, God loves us so much that He also gave humanity free will – the ability to have a choice to either love God in return or reject God and His love. God does not coerce us. God offers us His gift of divine life (grace) which empowers us to love God but we can also reject this gift of grace.
So then the question becomes, what do we choose? Do we love God? Do we want to be with God for eternity? Do we want to be infinitely happy with unending love, joy and peace? If yes, we MUST have a relationship with God. Prayer is a necessary aspect of this relationship. In prayer we are responding to God – it is God who takes the initiative and He first calls us. Prayer is our loving response to God. Prayer is speaking and listening to God. Prayer is expressing our desire to be united to God and to do His will. Prayer is our act of love. In prayer we adore God, give thanks to God and repent before Him. We also ask for our petitions and intercessions. The most perfect expression of prayer is the Mass but we are also to pray throughout the day in other ways. We may simply offer up a short prayer of thanks when something good happens. We may experience something breathtaking and proclaim words of adoration. We may cry out for help in moments of need. But more than short prayers throughout the day we cannot neglect giving God some of our time – dedicated time during the day where we can truly be with God for a prolonged period of time. Anytime we pray, we must also be deeply aware of what we are saying and with whom we are speaking. We cannot be in a rush. We must prayer with sincere love and reverence.
The components of our prayers in general should usually include words of adoration, of thanksgiving, of repentance and then we can also express our petitions and intercessions. The form of our prayer can vary. Some examples of types of prayer are vocal prayer, meditative prayer and contemplative prayer.
Vocal prayer is when we speak prayers aloud often joined with physical gestures such as kneeling or making the sign of the cross. This could be saying memorized prayers such as the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer), reading the Psalms aloud, praying before meals, etc. It also includes spontaneous prayers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “Whether or not our prayer is heard depends not on the number of words but on the fervor of our souls” (CCC #2700).
Meditative prayer is when we have a mental conversation with God. We seek to understand what the Lord is asking of us and how we are to be faithful, obedient disciples. Sometimes this can be assisted by reading Scripture, reflecting on the words of other holy writings or using images to draw our mind to God.
Contemplative prayer is an intense form of prayer where we firmly fix the gaze of our entire being on God. We surrender to the loving will of God and desire deeper communion with Him.
(Go here to read more on these different forms of prayer: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s1c3a1.htm )
The goal of prayer
As you can see, the goal of prayer is not to receive material benefits. The goal of our prayer life is to deepen our relationship with God. Prayer allows us to grow in our knowledge and love of God. Through prayer we become more firmly united to God. This is the purpose.
It is also true that in our prayers God wants us to offer to Him our prayers of petition and intercession. God knows us and knows what we need but He still wants us to ask Him for help. He wants us to put our trust and confidence in Him. We see in Scripture, “ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you” (Mk 11:24; Mk 9:23; Matt 21:22). God promises that He will always answer our prayers and this is a promise He always keeps.
However, we have to recognize that God does not always answer our prayers in the same way we think He should. When God answers our prayers it will be in His time and in His own way. God loves us and wants us to be in heaven with Him. When we ask for something from Him, He will answer our request in such a way that the result is something that leads us closer to Him and to heaven. When we offer our petitions and intercessions we cannot try to manipulate God and we cannot bargain with Him. We need to express our needs, wants and desires but then place them in God’s trusting hands, recognizing in His perfect wisdom He will respond to our request with what is in our best eternal interest. And we cannot judge whether or not God is blessing us simply by looking at if we are experiencing suffering or success. The rich, powerful, wealthy people are not necessarily in God’s favor. Similarly, the poor, the sick and those suffering are not necessarily being punished by God. Too often humanity is myopic – we only look at the here and now. We are too earthly minded. God, however, views everything with eternity in mind. Thus, God’s answers to our prayers are filled with eternal value, regardless of whether or not there is an earthly benefit as well.
Too often we are distracted or make excuses as to why we do not prayer. Because we are human we also tend to forget or neglect the reality that God is the center of our lives – it is God holding all things in existence. It is this same God who loves us and desires that we all will one day be in heaven with Him for eternity. God wants to be in a relationship with each of us. God calls out to us in love. Prayer is our response to God and is an essential component of our relationship with Him. Prayer is our expression of love in response to God who first loved us. Prayer is not simply an act of petition and intercession. Prayer is not a belief in magic or that we can manipulate God. Prayer is an intimate form of conversation and communion with the one true God, Creator and Father of all. God – THE Supreme Being – desires a relationship with US! He does not want to be impersonal or a mere spectator in our lives! He wants us to come to know Him! Let us not hesitate. Let us recognize the great gift we have in prayer and grow in our relationship with God more and more each day.