“...a thorn in the flesh was given to me...Three times
I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.’”
“So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
I really wish there was an easy answer! There is not. It is not only too simple, but also wrong, to say that God would answer all of our prayers if only we had enough faith. God doesn’t work that way and neither does faith. Prayer, even intercessory prayer or petition, is not a math equation where, if we get the variables right, the answer is assured. It’s not even like a probability problem where, if we get the variables mostly right, the answer is mostly assured. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote about prayer, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” Even prayers of petition, by their nature, are more than asking for some good thing. They contain within them a deep and mysterious communion with God. They are a relationship with the one who is love itself and depend upon the gift of ourselves to the divine in response to God’s gift of himself to us. They depend upon our trust in God, or upon our faith.
This faith is not a power we wield over God to manipulate him to do our will. It is almost the opposite: abandoning ourselves to the providence of God. Our cares, concerns, needs, desires, hopes, challenges, and sufferings are the material with which we make our prayers, but the foundation and goal of our prayers is God’s will, not our own. It is embracing and being embraced by divine love. When Jesus teaches us how to pray, these petitions are included: “give us this day our daily bread,” “lead us not into temptation,” and “deliver us from evil.” Jesus, who could hardly be accused of not having enough faith, fasted for forty days and was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Even more, in the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed while sweating blood, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He added, “Yet, not as I will, but as you will.” The cup didn’t pass from Jesus and the thorn didn’t pass from Paul, either.
We have to be real with God. To be authentic in relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we must ask for what we want; all of our cares, concerns, needs, desires, hopes, challenges, and sufferings offered to God. Our faith, far from coercing God to answer, lets go of our will in loving abandon to God’s will. C. S. Lewis explained why he prayed, “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.” We have to petition God, not to change, but to be changed by God.
This article is too short, too limited, and I really wish there was an easy answer! It is somehow more than whether this or that petition is answered by God in the way we have asked for it to be answered. We must ask it that way! But, then, we must abandon ourselves in faith to the loving embrace of God. Not my will, but yours be done.