Every now and again I receive particular requests from people; some of them – the people, not the requests – are from my friends, some are from acquaintances, and some are from complete strangers. These people come from a variety of age-groups, backgrounds, heritages and origins… the list is pretty long. What they all have in common in this particular context is a deep need for intercessory prayer for them personally or for their families or friends. Sometimes the number of these requests is humanly difficult to fulfil; more precisely, it’s the gravity of the reasons or causes behind the petitions I’m asked to offer that is overwhelming. Very rarely am I asked to pray for trivial things like winning the lottery; mostly they concern matters of life or death – or even more important events. On a human level, most of the time I feel helpless about not being able to supply adequate answers to the challenging questions of life, or to find adequate words to give consolation. Sometimes prayer is the only thing that I can offer.
Today’s first reading is one of my favourite biblical stories. A vivid description of the battle the Hebrews had to fight on their way to the Promised Land presents the importance of the spiritual aspect to actions that we carry out. Not only in a religious context is it important: we can apply it to every kind of action, if we replace prayer with consideration. Such an exchange or substitution may sound sacrilegious to pious ears, but bear with me just for the moment. There are two important questions concerning prayer, and they are: ‘What is prayer?’ and ‘What is the purpose or goal of prayer?’ These two questions are inseparable, as are the answers to them.
Prayer is one of the means of communication with the divine. The obvious assumption is that the divine is a Person with a set of specific qualities; in short, we call such a being ‘God’. In the Christian faith we believe that communication between God and man goes both ways and is mutual. God and man talk to each other and listen to each other. That’s the essential description of prayer. Many people doubt whether God actually listens to them or speaks to them. Such doubt or incredulity might result from an individual’s personal experience of the answer to the second question: ‘What is the purpose of prayer?’ or, in other words, ‘What am I supposed to achieve by praying?’ In our answers to this question, many disappointments with an apparently unresponsive God have been born.
Today’s gospel seems to suggest that prayer is a way of changing God’s mind – if I keep pestering God long enough he will eventually buckle, give in and give me whatever it is I have been relentlessly nagging him for. That notion might be interesting, but it would mean that God made some sort of mistake in the first place, and changed his mind due to my powers of persuasion. In that case, why do I need God? I’ve got enough fallible friends whom I can talk to much more easily over dinner or on the phone. Today’s gospel message is about perseverance in prayer, because that’s the way I’m being changed and transformed. The purpose of prayer is to learn and to understand God’s plans for my life; plans born out of the unconditional love that God has for me and for you. Sometimes those plans don’t come across as attractive to me, or are on a collision course with my own. Through prayer I gradually surrender my arrogant, baseless sense of self-importance in order to learn the true value of myself and of my life. Eventually I lovingly accept and embrace God’s plans for me because I have learnt to trust Him. Whatever action follows is my attempt to live out what I have learnt. As a fallible person I don’t always get it right. But I can return to prayer and ask God to change me bit by bit for the better.