The Righteous Forefather Abraham bargains with the Lord for the survival of Sodom. The Holy Prophet and God-Seer Moses pleads with him on behalf of faithless Israel. When the Prophet Jonah declares to the people of Nineveh their imminent destruction, they repent, God spares them, and the prophet sulks. How are we to understand these stories and sayings? Do our petitions persuade the eternal Creator to do things he might otherwise not do? Does he literally change his mind? And if he does, how is he any different from Ba’al or Zeus?
Fr Herbert McCabe addresses these questions head-on:
The notion of petitionary prayer is unintelligible if we interpret it as putting pressure on God or seeking to change his mind. It is intelligible if we see it as the means God has chosen from eternity to bring about some outcome. Aquinas reminds us that my freely uttered prayer is as much a creature of God as is the ‘answer’ to my prayer. My prayer does not bring it about that God does something; God brings it about that it is my prayer that does something. (Faith Within Reason, p. 122)
Toss aside all notions of cajoling a reluctant or capricious god to do good to us and our family and friends. “Your Father,” Jesus reminds us, “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). From all eternity God wills our good, and from all eternity he wills that this good be accomplished through prayer, through that mysterious interaction of divine and human agency that we call synergism.
Yet petitioning God sure feels like a form of persuasion. As all the modern preachers and theologians tell us, God is a person, just like all the other persons we know. Persons assess the consequences of their choices and then make the best decisions they can. When someone asks us to do something for them, we typically make up our minds based on considerations like “Who is this person to me?” and “How much will it cost me?” and “What’s the upside?” Yet surely the Maker of heaven and earth does not ask himself questions like these. He does not weigh risks and gains, nor is he subject to flattery, inveiglement, or rhetorical pressure.
But didn’t Jesus himself encourage us to think of God buckling under our importunate praying?
Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”; and he will answer from within, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything”? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs. (Lk 11:5-8)
And if our persistent petitioning does not get it done, then perhaps we need to enlist our friends. But how many intercessors do we need before God answers our prayer?
The answer is simple—don’t take this parable literally! “God is no more literally persuaded by our prayers,” states McCabe, “than he is literally a mighty fortress or a small voice or a mother hen—all of which the Bible says he is at various times” (God Still Matters, p. 57). We can bargain with pagan deities, because they exist on the same metaphysical plane as we do, yet not so with the Holy One of Israel. This is the same God who both institutes the system of Temple sacrifices and then sends the prophets to teach his people that their sacrifices are worthless if they are not accompanied by fidelity and obedience.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you;
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats? (Ps 50:12-13)
God is not a god. Our language cannot handle his transcendent reality. That we know this is Judaism’s great gift to mankind:
The Bible teems with images and with metaphorical statements. ‘God repented him of what he had done.’ ‘The wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people.’ ‘The mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out.” “The Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people.’ Where would we be without this language? It is the natural language of prayer and prophecy and worship. It was the great Jewish discovery that such language must be metaphorical because God is not a god, not a member of the universe who could literally be said to be moved by pity. God is not a god who could be said literally to be moved by our prayers. This was a great Jewish discovery: that nearly all pure language about God must be metaphorical. It was very different from the slightly later Greek discovery that stores about the gods could be treated as philosophical allegories about man; you could reinterpret the myths of the gods into statements about human morality or the human unconscious. You could if you wanted to be boring enough. The Jews had a different perspective. They wanted to talk of God all right, not just humanity. If what they said had a profound impact on human morality it was because their talk of God eliminated the gods, and this atheism had devastating effects on political and personal morality. It was a huge human liberation compared to which the Athenian democracy was a game for rich boys played while their armies of slaves kept the real world going. (pp. 57-58)
A figurative interpretation of the Scriptures, therefore, is mandated by the transcendent nature of the Creator. Yet not all our language for God is metaphorical. McCabe offers this guideline: metaphorical statements can be both asserted and denied. Yes, it’s appropriate to image God as a mighty fortress, yet we know that we need to immediately qualify ourselves: “But of course God is not literally a fortress.” Yes, it’s appropriate to think of God as someone whom we may importune by our prayers, yet we must also deny that he can be so importuned. But there are also some things that we want to say about God that we cannot deny: God is love, God is justice, God created the universe, God died on a cross. We mean these statements quite literally, for we cannot contradict them. Following St Thomas Aquinas, McCabe invokes the notion of analogy to describe those affirmations that faith demands, even while breaking all our categories and conceptuality.
But if we cannot persuade God to our point of view and manipulate him to do what we want, why pray?
We might, to start with, note that, when we pray, we should not be in too much of a hurry to think about God. We should think about ourselves and what we need. And we should present this before God. If you want to know why you should pray; the short answer is that God wants you to. And not because he craves for your attention and wants you to flatter him, but because he loves you and wants what is best for you and because praying is very good for you. Of course your prayer doesn’t do anything for God, still less could it change God. God is just totally and absolutely and unconditionally in love with you and stays that way without a shadow of alteration. Prayer is good for us first of all because in prayer (I mean real prayer: asking for what we want) we understand more deeply that we are children of God and that he is our loving Father. And there is nothing selfish about that. It is normal human behaviour. What would you think of a child who never asked her parents for anything? What would her parents think of her? Would they think her to be unselfish? Or would they think her to be a dreadful little prig? (God, Christ and Us, p. 104)
McCabe has no truck with sophisticated theologians and otherworldly ascetics who diminish or demean the necessity of petitionary prayer. Petition is good for us. By our petitions we realize our filial relationship with God through Jesus Christ. God wants us to ask him for the goods of life (“give us this day our daily bread”), for he desires to give us these goods in response to our petitions. But why? McCabe offers two suggestions:
First, petition prepares us to receive as gift the goods God intends to give us. “The prayer,” McCabe remarks, “is not to make God ready to give, but to make us ready to receive. Have you ever said ‘thank you’ for a gift by saying, ‘It’s just what I’ve always wanted?’ Well, God wants his gifts to be, and to be seen to be, what we have wanted. After all, every good thing that comes to us is the gift of God; but when it comes to us as an answer to prayer we see it for what it really is, as a gift of God, an expression of his love” (p. 6). Why do we ask our children to give us a list of the toys they want for Christmas? We probably already know what they want, and we could just as easily give them their favorite toy today rather than wait for Christmas. But then it wouldn’t be Christmas, would it? Besides, it’s so much more fun to get what we really want rather than a pair of socks or a necktie. Or in the sober words of the Angelic Doctor: “For prayer is not established for the purpose of changing the eternal disposition of providence, since this is impossible, but so that a person may obtain from God the object which he desires” (CG 95.1).
Second, through the practice of petition God brings us to maturity, heals our disordered desires, and leads us to recognition of our true and deepest desires. We touch on here one of McCabe’s more contentious ascetic counsels: pray for what you want, not for what you should want:
When we pray, we display a divine power which is in us because we are in Christ, sharing his life. We speak to the Father with the voice of his Son because we have been taken up to share in their Spirit. … Whenever. And whatever we pray for, we are in Christ.
Now this is an astonishing teaching: every bringing of our desires before our Father in heaven is Christ in us speaking to his Father and ours. There are people, you know, who cannot believe this. They will tell you that the only true prayer is prayer for higher spiritual things, unselfish prayer, prayer for the grace to be forgiving and kind, for a deeper understanding of the scriptures, for the conversion of sinners, prayer for others and not for ourselves. They are very shocked if you say that praying to pass an exam or, worse still, praying that you will be able to afford a new car, is just as much part of the life of the Spirit.
You must indeed pray for the right things; but the right things are not the noble high-minded things that you think you ought to want, they are the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want. Genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before your Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart—never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that. (pp. 7-8)
Human beings desire. We are created by God as desiring beings. Above all, we are created with an unquenchable thirst for God, without whom we cannot find genuine happiness. Yet we also need basic creaturely goods to live well in this world. We should pray for these goods, counsels McCabe, even if our desire for them is disproportionately skewed. How else can we learn what we truly desire? McCabe is confident that if we are honest with our Father about what we think we want, he will lead us to know the fundamental truth of our hearts:
When you pray, consider what you want and need and never mind how vulgar or childish it might appear. If you want very much to pass that exam or get to know that girl or boy better, that is what you should pray for. You could let world peace rest for a while. You may not be ready yet to want that passionately. When you pray you must come before God as honestly as you can. There is no point in pretending to him. One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want; and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting. In true prayer you must meet God and meet yourself where you really are, for it is just by this that God will move you on from where you really are. For prayer is a bit of a risk. If you pray and acknowledge your most infantile desires, there is every danger that you may grow up a bit, that God will grow you up. When (as honestly as you can) you speak to God of your desires, very gently and tactfully he will often reveal to you that in fact you have deeper and more mature desires. But there is only one way to find this out: to start from where you are. It is no good pretending to yourself that you are full of high-minded aspirations. You have to wait until you are. If a child is treated as though she were already an adult, she will never become an adult. Prayer is the way in which our Father in heaven leads each of us by different paths to be saints, that is to say, with him. (p. 105)
But what if what we want is to inflict harm on someone else? Do we go ahead and pray for their destruction?
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Ps 137:8-9)
The psalmist brings his desire for vengeance into his prayer. Was he wrong to do so? Unfortunately, McCabe does not address this question, but I suspect that he might approve. Having witnessed the horrors of war, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies, and forced deportation, the psalmist passionately yearns for justice, for retribution, for vengeance. What else do we expect him to pray for? What else can he pray for? The dominical instruction to pray for one’s enemies would not be unveiled for another five hundred years. Perhaps the imprecatory psalms, which Jesus himself no doubt prayed in the synagogue, helped lead him to his breathtaking revelation: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).
But we should not be surprised if our petitions are not granted. St Thomas understood this: “God fulfills the desires of a rational creature, to the extent that he desires the good. Now, it sometimes happens that what is sought in prayer is not a true, but an apparent, good; speaking absolutely, it is an evil. Therefore, such a prayer is not capable of being granted by God. Hence, it is said in James (4:3): ‘You ask and you receive not, because you ask amiss'” (CG 96.2). Again, perhaps it will be the experience of hearing “no” that we will be led into deeper apprehension of our true needs and desires. “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42).
God either gives us what we ask for or he gives us something more, never less. Every petition is answered, McCabe confidently states. When God gives us what we ask for, we should be grateful and rejoice in the gift. “But when he does not he is giving us a greater gift, inviting us to grow a little, to realize not just that there are greater and more important things, but that we actually want these more important things” (p. 9). Here is the educative and sanctifying end of prayer—the unveiling and consummation of our deepest desires in Jesus Christ.