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The Paradox of Prayer

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

by Fr. Jonathan Atchley

God created us to serve in this life that we might receive the benefits of faithful service in eternity. It is for this we are exhorted by Scriptures to pray always (1 Thes. 5:16-17), that our love for God should not be a part-time occupation but our constant effort and singular goal of service, uniting our minds and hearts to our Creator. Prayer should consume us in our intentions and actions throughout the day, every day. This is the foremost occupation of Christ’s faithful disciples, that we might pray!

The Catechism defines prayer as a "vital and personal relationship with the living and true God" (CCC, no. 2558). It is preeminently an act of a rational creature to unite oneself with the Creator. Although all creation groans for salvation, animals don’t pray; only rational creatures do. The one who prays confidently desires that God will hear and answer our requests even as we ask, as He prophesied in Isaiah 65:24: “It will come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear.”

God made us to love us and for us to love Him. Prayer helps us understand and value this mystery. Some say that we pray to change God’s will, but it is more correct to say the opposite: that prayer prepares and changes us to want what God wants. As we learn to desire Him, prayer moves us more perfectly to conform to this goal of desiring what God wants. In praying to want God’s will, we train ourselves to receive Him in superabundance.

Of course, prayer is rightly offered only to God, but Catholics pray as well for the assistance of angels and saints that our desires might be perfected through their own petitions and merits. A proper way to say this is not that Catholics pray to saints, but we pray with saints, that what God wills may be realized in the desires of all. Prayer of the faithful means that those of us struggling to serve God faithfully (the Church Militant) share in the merits of those who have earned their heavenly reward (the Church Triumphant) without forgetting to intercede for those in Purgatory being purified of their sins (the Church Suffering).

The curious reality about prayer, as St. Paul affirms, is that “we know not what we should pray for as we ought." Even the pagan philosopher Socrates taught that we should ask the immortal gods for nothing else but that they should grant us as good things, because they know what is good whereas we do not; on the contrary, frequently we ask for what is not good, and quite often it would be better we do not obtain what we ask. This is the truth capsulized in the story of Adam and Eve with the Tree of Good and Evil: men and women do not know what is good, but only what appears to be good, and so we must constantly reassess our desires and choices as God wills for us, lest we mistakenly choose our own demise.

Scriptures teaches us that while we do not always know what is good, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

What this means is that we are better equipped to desire rightly and therefore ask rightly, when we pray. When we don’t pray, we fail to grasp what is good and often end up seeking what would be harmful instead. "You ask and receive not, because you ask amiss" (James 4:3).

Jesus exhorts us to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, but that doesn’t mean we should pray only for spiritual goods. Rather, it suggests that we prioritize spiritual goods over transient material goods. The reality is that we are body and soul, and in this life, we require bodily goods to attain the spiritual blessings God wants us to have. The danger of course is that we might be distracted by material goods to the exclusion of salvation, which should be our uppermost desire; but if we learn to prioritize desire with prayer as faith instructs, we can rightly ask for material benefits and blessings.

So, too, we are rightly instructed by the Lord to pray for others’ needs, out of the obligation Christ imposes on us: love your neighbor as yourself. Love means that we ought to desire good things not only for ourselves but for others as well. By obliging us to love one another, God wills that we pray for one another’s welfare as an act of love. This is why St. John Chrysostom claims that while we pray for ourselves out of necessity, our prayers for others out of charity is more pleasing to God because such an act mirrors the benevolence of Our Lord himself. When we learn to pray as Jesus prayed by loving as he loved, we have perfected the act of praying.

It is particularly true that our prayer has been perfected when we begin to pray earnestly for our enemies. While praying for others is a moral obligation imposed by Our Lord, praying for our enemies is a sign of moral perfection, because we seek our enemy’s good even when that good seems to be contrary to our own. We are learning to love as Christ loved us, for when we were sinners, he offered himself as a sacrifice for our salvation. Loving our enemies means to seek their salvation as Christ sought ours—with mercy and justice. When our neighbor’s faults and failings are glaring and offensive to us, seeking to challenge them as well as forgiving them is a charitable act of the highest order. None of us is perfect, but the way of perfection is such that we strive for perfection together, even when our enemies are God’s enemies who want to avoid perfection. This desire to pray for the salvation of our enemies feels contrary to nature, though it manifests the perfection of the power of prayer. Admittedly this seems paradoxical, but the truth is, we are all works in progress!

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