THE PURPOSE OF PETITIONARY PRAYERS
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ GAL 3:1-5; LK 11:5-13 ]
“For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds, whoever knocks, is admitted.” Such encouraging and hopeful words from Jesus indeed! But are these promises of Jesus really true to life? Can we really believe that if we ask, seek and find persistently enough, we will surely get what we want in life? The reverse seems to be more true because there are many instances in life when the more we ask, the more we do not get; the more we seek, the further away we get; and the more we knock, the more we are ignored. This experience is applicable both in our relationships with people, the world and even with God Himself. So how can Jesus say that we will surely get what we want if we tried hard enough?
As if this is not enough, Jesus even asks us to do something else. He asks us to pray to the heavenly Father so that He will give us the Holy Spirit. If we read this text as a pre-resurrection text, then we know that the Holy Spirit cannot yet be given until after the death and resurrection of Jesus. So how could Jesus ask His disciples to pray for the Holy Spirit? However, if we read this text as a post-resurrection interpretation, then the Holy Spirit is given to all in unknown ways, but in a Christian way to those who are baptized. If the Spirit has already been given to us, how then can we still ask God for the Holy Spirit? If the Holy Spirit is already dwelling in our hearts, how can we ask the Spirit to be more present in our lives? Indeed, the Spirit has never left us since. So what does Jesus mean when He asks us to pray for the Holy Spirit?
These conundrums are well synthesized in the first reading by Paul. He was flabbergasted at the so-called madness of the Galatians. For Paul, it was unbelievable that the cross had not taught them anything. They had forgotten that it was not through their efforts in observing the Old Testament laws that they received the Spirit; rather, it was their faith in Christ, the Good News, that God lavished the Spirit on them. Yes, in matters of faith and love, they are pure gifts from God. They cannot be attained simply by human persistence or effort. Efforts at most can change the external behaviour or conduct of a person, but they cannot change the center. Efforts will make us ambitious, egoistic and self-reliant. Even before we ask for anything, God has already given to us because He knows what we need. “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Mt 6:7-8)
If that is the case, does it mean therefore that we should give up praying, especially the prayer of petition? Of course not! Why? What is the value of the prayer of petition then? Firstly, the prayer of petition is but a prayer of discernment. The truth is, we become what we pray. What we pray for tells us about ourselves, who we are, our values and desires in life. For those who are spiritually weak, their prayers consist mainly of material and temporal favours. Most prayers tend to be focused on the needs of the individual. Those of us who have grown in spiritual maturity tend to be more inclusive in their prayers, embracing others and even those whom they do not know. Their prayers go beyond temporal needs to spiritual favours, especially for peace, love, unity etc. Indeed, what we pray is what we will become. For this reason we must be extremely careful about how and what we pray for.
Thus, in order to pray rightly, we need to discern well. The prayer of petition therefore is the way in which and by which we vocalize our desires. By verbalizing our desires, we crystallize our aspirations and wants. In so doing, we can therefore more objectively distinguish what we really need, that is, those things that are really good for us and what we want, which may be to our detriment. In other words, we will not mistake the scorpion for an egg, a snake for a fish or the stone for the bread. Indeed, a snake looks like a fish or an eel and bread can look like stone. Hence, the need for proper discernment, or else we can easily be deceived by the apparent good of the things we ask. So the prayer of petition is necessary to help us realize that sometimes what we ask for is destructive for us. Because of ignorance, we do not even know what we should be asking. So that is the first value of the prayer of petition.
The second purpose of the prayer of petition is that it is but a prayer of self-realization. Now, if Jesus encourages us to ask, it is because asking, seeking and finding would be the necessary ways by which we can come to know the foolishness of asking, seeking and finding those things that are detrimental to our happiness and total well-being. Some of us ask for a promotion in our career or for more money, and we wonder why God does not answer our prayers. Truth be told, God knows better than us because He cares for us more than just supplying our needs. What good is it to get promoted in our job at the expense of losing our faith, spiritual life and even the love of the family or even our health? We are so easily tempted by the world that for the sake of success and money we leave no time for God, our spiritual life and our loved ones. The issue in question is whether we prefer mammon or God?
It is the pedagogy of God to teach us that all that is necessary for us have already been given to us. But we will never be convinced of this until we are driven to the edge of our searching and asking; and recognizing the futility of it we stop asking and searching. If only we can be contented with what we have and when the opportunity presents itself, we might have less complications in life than insisting on acquiring what is not ours. The paradox of life is that the moment we stop desiring, this is when God takes over. God knows what to give us and what is best for us. The moment we stop asking and searching, we return home, to ourselves. In returning to ourselves, we will realize that we can be happy just simply being ourselves because the Holy Spirit already lives in us. That is to say, we become who we really are. Thus, we must continue to ask, seek and find everyday so that we might be kept aware of the fact that the Holy Spirit is living in us already. The prayer of petition is necessary so that we can remind ourselves that even before we ask for anything, the heavenly Father already knows what we need; and surely we can believe that He will give us only good things for our happiness. But He does not only give us things. He has given His personal self to us in the Holy Spirit. And it is this Holy Spirit in us that will ensure that whatever we want in life really brings us true, and not simply apparent, happiness. This assurance of the full awareness of God’s Spirit in us will inevitably fill us with deep joy. With the Holy Spirit, we will experience love, joy and peace. In the final analysis, more than just pleasure and luxury, what we need most is to share in the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Money and pleasure cannot bring us true joy and love.
And thus, this becomes the third reason for the prayer of petition; that it might ultimately end up as a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. A person can only be filled with the spirit of praise and thanksgiving when he stops asking. And he stops asking only because he has become aware that he is complete; that he does not need anything else to be happy; that his happiness is ultimately to be one in Spirit with God. In other words, when we desire what God wants for us, we will always be happy, regardless of the situation we are in. Conversely, people are unhappy only because they are never contented with what they have and who they are. Thus, they crave for this and that; they want to become this and that; they want to go here and there. A discontented man is an unhappy man. He cannot find peace and happiness. Yes, only a man filled with gratitude and thanksgiving for what he already has can be filled with joy. This joy comes about because he is totally free; he is totally detached and he is totally consecrated to God. True and total freedom removes all fear and therefore brings the joy that only the Spirit of God can give.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online, nor will they be available via email request.