A DISCERNING PRAYER
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Est 4:17; Ps 138:1-3,7-8; Mt 7:7-12 ]
The prevailing theme of this first week of Lent is on prayer. On Tuesday, the gospel gave us the guidelines and pattern of all prayers, namely, the Lord’s Prayer. Yesterday, we read how the Ninevites, upon hearing of their imminent destruction, called on the name of the Lord in prayer and fasting and their prayers were heard. In the first reading today, we read about Queen Esther who was in desperation for God’s help to save her people from extermination. And the same message runs through these next few days that God will hear our prayers when they are sincere, fervent and filled with faith.
But today, the liturgy deepens further the understanding of prayer as not mere seeking for petitions to be answered. Most people reduce prayer to asking God for help. This is just only one form of prayer. Jesus already reminded us that “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that 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 6:7f) Indeed, before we ask, the Father already knows what we need. He can read our hearts and our desires. He does not even need us to articulate them. That is why St Paul also wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom 8:26f)
Otherwise, our prayers could end up asking for the wrong things because of our ignorance. This was what the Lord warned us. “Is there a man among you who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or would hand him a snake when he asked for a fish?” Often, we pray with a limited vision. We tend to react to trials and sufferings that come our way. We are like little children crying out for help instead of behaving like adults, thinking through carefully how to overcome our trials and tribulations in a way that is truly beneficial not just for us but for others, and even our enemies.
We cannot allow our emotions and fears to decide what we want and what we need. This was the situation of Queen Esther. In desperation, in great anxiety and fear, she turned to the Lord and said, “Put persuasive words into my mouth when I face the lion; change his feeling into hatred for our enemy that the latter and all like him may be brought to their end.” The prayer to destroy our enemies is not the prayer of a Christian but the prayer of someone in desperation, in fear or even in vindictiveness. In the gospel, Jesus made it clear that forgiveness is a condition for prayer. That was why in the Lord’s Prayer He concluded by asking us to pray, “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Mt 6:12) And in Mark’s gospel, Jesus said, “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mk 11:24f)
Yet, the fact is that when we are in desperation, we pray without thinking and considering what we are asking for. In the case of Queen Esther, while it was right that she prayed for the grace to say the right words to the King so that he could be moved to save his people, she lacked the wisdom and compassion to pray for her enemies. As St Paul says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:19-21)
For this reason, when we pray, we must be discerning. God will only grant us what is good, not what is evil. “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! ‘So always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets.'” All prayers directed to God must be for our good and the good of others. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to pray as one family and for this reason we address God as OUR Father. Every father loves his children regardless. So we cannot expect God who is the Father of us all, to destroy His other children in order to save us. God does not do evil. He seeks to do good and He would even send His Son to die for us as sinners. Indeed, in yesterday’s scripture reading on the story of Jonah, we are told that the sign to be given to them is that of Jonah, in that Christ at His passion, death and resurrection was like Jonah who was thrown into the sea and swallowed up by a large fish. Jonah said to the people, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:12) Jesus however died for us, innocent though He was for our sins.
A discerning prayer therefore would entail firstly by asking. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you.” To ask is more than merely making a request because as the Lord already said, His Father knows what we need even before we ask from Him. So this asking is to articulate our intentions in the heart aloud so that we can hear what we are asking. When we hear what we are saying, we can discern clearer whether what we are praying for is in the mind of God and according to His will. Only prayers made in the name of Christ, that is, when we pray according to His mind and heart, will be answered. If our prayers do not agree with what the Lord is asking, which means we are going against the will of God and His wisdom, we cannot expect the Lord to grant us gifts that would destroy us ultimately, even if not in this life, in the life hereafter.
Secondly, Jesus said, “search, and you will find.” A discerning prayer is one that searches one’s own heart and the heart of God. We pray in such a way that our motives are pure and holy. St Paul wrote, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:6-8) Hence to search means to purify our intentions and seek the wisdom of God in whatever we are praying for. God might have other solutions for us in dealing with a difficult situation. That was how our Blessed Mother prayed. She told the servants at Cana after making known to her Son that the guests had no wine, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5)
Finally, a discerning prayer is one that knocks. Jesus said, “the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him.” This means that although God will answer our prayers, He normally answers through others. Therefore, whilst asking God to help us, we must not simply do nothing and expect God to act. As it is said, we must do our best and leave the rest to God. We must pray and work. We need to follow the advice of St Benedict, “Ora et labora”. Thus, it behoves us to seek the necessary advice, having the courage to approach the right people to help us, being receptive to the messengers that God sends to us. To knock means to look for solutions and cooperate with the grace of God. Unless we have the humility to knock, to seek for help, we will miss out on the opportunities the Lord is giving to us. To knock also means that we must persevere in seeking for the answers to our prayers.
In the final analysis, whether in asking, searching or knocking, we must persevere in our prayers with faith. Like Queen Esther, we must trust in the power of God as she did when she said, “My Lord, our King, the only one, come to my help, for I am alone and have no helper. As for ourselves, save us by your hand, and come to my help, for I am alone and have no one but you, Lord.” Furthermore, she added, “I have been taught from my earliest years, in the bosom of my family, that you, Lord, chose Israel out of all the nations and our ancestors out of all the people of old times to be your heritage for ever; and that you have treated them as you promised. Remember, Lord; reveal yourself in the time of our distress.” By recalling the fidelity of God to our forefathers, we will gain faith in the power and mercy of God to save us from our distress because He is the faithful one. Indeed, let our prayer be with the psalmist, “You stretch out your hand and save me, your hand will do all things for me. Your love, O Lord, is eternal, discard not the work of your hands.”
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.
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