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Chapter 29: Prayer: The Fundamental Category of Christian Action

Question E: Are prayers always answered?

1. Jesus says, “Every one who asks receives” (Lk 11.10) and, “Ask, and you will receive” (Jn 16.24). Yet often we ask in his name, without receiving what we ask for.

2. A partial explanation might be that one has not yet prayed long enough, but at times such an explanation is clearly irrelevant. Parents pray for their children’s safety—surely a legitimate request—but the children sometimes die in accidents. The same is true of liturgical prayer as well: The Church prays for unity, but unity does not come. The Church prays for peace, but persecutions and wars continue.

3. The solution is along the following lines. God is a loving Father, and he does hear and answer our prayers. The First Epistle of John says: “This is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him” (1 Jn 5.14–15). However, God responds wisely. Therefore, he does not always give us exactly what we ask for. Wise parents do not give their children sweets every time they ask, for otherwise the children would be malnourished and would have rotten teeth. Instead, the parents provide a balanced diet and offer other forms of gratification, such as cuddling.

4. The principle emerging here was at work in Jesus’ own prayer and the Father’s way of answering it. Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering might pass him by (see Mt 26.39–44; Lk 22.39–44). But he was crucified. He had, however, couched his request in conditional form, as we should do: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26.39; cf. Lk 22.42). One who loves God prays first of all: “Your will be done” (Mt 6.10). Thus, a sacred writer can say of Jesus and his prayer: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb 5.7). Obviously, Jesus’ passion and death occurred; he was not saved from death in the precise way he requested. Yet he was saved from death: “He has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee” (Mt 28.7).

5. We must trust that God deals similarly with our requests. Though our prayers are often not granted in the specific form in which we make them, the safety and well-being of those for whom we pray will nevertheless be secured, provided only they come to fulfillment in Jesus, in which every human good will be enjoyed together with the blessed vision of God.

6. Still, this solution to the traditional problem about petitionary prayer only leads to a more fundamental and metaphysical difficulty. If we are always to pray that God’s will be done, what is the point of praying? As Jesus himself says, God already knows what we need (see Mt 6.32; Lk 12.30). Moreover, his providence embraces everything, and his will of all the good that ever will be done is clearly antecedent to our own upright desires (see Wis 11.20–22; Rom 11.33–36).

7. St. Thomas answers this difficulty by saying our prayers do not alter God’s plans but fulfill them (see S.t., 1, q. 19, a. 5, ad 2; 2–2, q. 83, a. 2; S.c.g., 3, 95–96). God has disposed not only that goods be given us, but that they be given in answer to our prayers. Our prayers also are part of the providential design; God wills them so that we might have a share in bringing about even his redeeming work.

8. This answer seems sound, provided it is not misunderstood. As we have already seen, prayer is an essential and basic dimension of our interpersonal relationship with the divine persons. By acts of prayer we form ourselves into the relationship and begin to make our proper contribution to the bond of friendship. This is a real relationship, whose reality should not be diluted by positions erroneously derived from the metaphysical thesis that God is all-knowing and unchanging.

9. It is certainly true that ignorance, error, or change of any sort must be excluded from God. But also to be excluded are any sort of comprehensive knowledge and unalterability which we can understand (see S.t., 1, q. 13, a. 5; S.c.g., 1, 30). If we mistakenly suppose that God is all-knowing and unchanging in some sense we can fathom, prayer will indeed seem pointless. However, the presumption that we know what God is must be set aside, and his utter mysteriousness kept in mind. We do not know what God is in himself, but we know it is right to think of him as Father. Our prayers matter greatly to him; our petitions and gratitude are required if he is to develop the intimate relationship he desires with us.