Apologies to Edwin Starr for twisting the refrain from his 1969 song War. The lyric came to mind while I was recalling a conversation I had several years ago with one of my best friends. He asked the purpose of “petition” prayer if God has a plan for everything. My friend’s argument was, if God has a plan, and the outcome of God’s plan is predetermined, petitioning him for something is just a waste of time. So, is prayer, like war in Starr’s song, good for “absolutely nothing”? On the contrary, as we hear in our readings this weekend.
First, what is prayer? According to the Modern Catholic Dictionary by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., prayer is, “the voluntary response to the awareness of God’s presence. This response may be an acknowledgement of God’s greatness and of a person’s total dependence on him (adoration), or gratitude for his benefits to oneself and others (thanksgiving), or sorrow for sins committed and begging for mercy (expiation), or asking for graces needed (petition), or affection for God, who is all good (love).”
Great, so prayers are in different forms, but are they good for anything? In the first reading (Gen18:20-32) we hear Abraham conversing with God about the pending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. To my friend’s point, Abraham’s bargaining (or petition prayer) didn’t change the outcome for Sodom and Gomorrah. So, what was it good for? Nothing… for those two cities. But for us, we learn how much God values the innocent, and his receptiveness to persistence.
God’s receptiveness to persistence is confirmed by Jesus in the Gospel (Lk 11:1-13). Jesus tells the disciples the story of two friends at midnight, one in need, and one in bed. He says the friend in need will get what he needs from the friend in bed out of persistence, if not out of friendship. I emphasize needs because Jesus didn’t say the friend knocking would get what he was asking for but would get what he needs.
Not to overlook the other forms of prayer found in the definition, but to return to my friend’s argument, the good from petition prayer is often something other than what is being asked for. The good from petition prayer is often a change in those of us doing the praying. For instance, God isn’t going to help me win the lottery no matter how persistent I might be in praying to win. But over time God will answer my prayer with what I ultimately need, a heart centered on him, and gratitude for what I have.
Jesus says, “ask and you will receive” but he doesn’t say you will receive what you ask for. He says, “seek and you will find” but he doesn’t say you will find what you were seeking. But we can be confident we will receive and find what our good and loving Father has planned for us.
Prayer, what is it good for? Absolutely everything!
In the peace of Christ,