There are two basic blunders that we can make make in praying for ourselves: to be too demanding; and the opposite.
What must God make of much prayer, whether it’s petition or even intercession for others? Sometimes we’re like a small child continually pestering a parent at the supermarket: Pleeeeeze can I have sweets? Or to keep up with peers: My friends already have phones. I want one! Janis Joplin neatly skewered this type of prayer with “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”
No wonder that God’s answers are often along the lines of: No, sweets will give you a temporary high, but then you will crash and feel bad, and they will make you gain weight, rot your teeth, addict you to sugar, and give you diabetes. Or: Not yet. You aren’t old enough to use a phone responsibly. Why don’t you and your friends go and play outside?
Besides, a continual one-way stream of ‘do this, do that, I want, I want, I want’ is no basis for a loving relationship.
On the other hand, not to ask for anything at all is a denial of God’s desire to lavish us with indescribable gifts. Why do we not ask for ourselves? Maybe we see ourselves as not worthy, or that our task is always to pray for others.
But petition teaches us our utter dependence on God. To paraphrase Thomas Merton, writing in Thoughts in Solitude: the life of prayer is founded on the prayer of petition, always aware of our poverty and of our needs before God. We depend directly on God for everything material and spiritual, so we have to ask for everything. Petition is never a mere formality, a concession to human custom, as if we did not need God in everything.
In contemplative prayer, we are waiting on God, paying attention, not speaking but listening to God, discovering more of God’s compassionate and generous nature, and learning what is God’s gracious will so we can orient ourselves to it.
Our relationship with God deepens whenever we commit ourselves and any situation to God. As we enter more fully into the heart and purpose of God, we realise that God wills to work through our faltering prayers, building up our faith, trust and hope. Then we learn to give thanks whatever happens (see 1 Thess 5.16-18), and our limited capacity to receive God’s inexhaustible generosity expands ever more and more.
Merton again: We will come to know God by knowing that our prayer is always answered. Gratitude is therefore the heart of the Christian life. More to follow.
This is one of a series of articles appearing in Exeter Cathedral’s monthly news, complementing the material I contributed to the “Explore Prayer” section of the Cathedral website. I hope you find them helpful.