“I do not pray because it changes God. I pray because it changes me. I pray because the need flows out of me constantly.”In other words, it is not as if God has determined a certain event will or will not happen (the Packers will lose to the Bears), but we pray, so God’s mind is changed and the outcome is altered (the Packers beat the Bears). Granted, this is a somewhat trivial example, but there can be a tendency to ‘use’ prayer this way with major issues as well – illness, getting a certain job, safety in traveling, etc. The danger with such prayer is that when one’s wish does not come true, one’s faith can be shaken. At the same time, we do need to pray for all of those major issues in our lives (though maybe not for the Packers to win) as well as minor ones. Why? Because prayer is about being in relationship with God. We share our deepest thoughts and the desires of our heart with the one who created us, loves us, and knows us better than we know ourselves. We do so through prayers of intercession, but also through prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and even lament. The difference is not whether or not we pray for things we want and need, but how we understand that prayer. Prayer is not a way to control or manipulate God.
When we pray, we are responding to God’s universal call to us. There is something in the way in which we are created that gives us a desire for relationship with God. Theologian Karl Rahner says that each of us has been created to be a ‘hearer of God’s Word’. St. Augustine says,
“You created us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”In other words, we are already hard-wired for God. God’s call to each and every person is built in, and prayer is one of the ways in which we respond to that call, thus entering into a covenant relationship with the one who calls us. At the same time that we offer our response in prayer, we remember that our ability to respond is in itself a gift from God.
We also believe that God hears and answers our prayers. In saying this I do not mean to contradict what I said earlier about not controlling God. It may be difficult at times to recognize the answer to a prayer. While God is calling us into relationship, a relationship must be freely entered into by both parties. We are called to put some effort into the relationship and persevere even when we do not see or understand the response to our prayer. One’s relationship with God will have the same ups and downs that any human relationship encounters. In my own prayer life there are times when I feel very connected to God and other times when I feel like God is totally absent. It is at those times that I must call on all of my resources of perseverance and the help of the Holy Spirit to trust that God never abandons us, even when life seems the darkest or prayer seems the most empty. Sometimes that is when God is actually the closest. The mystic, saint, and doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila, went through three years of a ‘dry period’ in her prayer, a dark night where she felt entirely abandoned by God. Her advice to us was whatever you do in those moments, do not stop praying because to do so is to take yourself out of relationship with God.