One of the common experiences, and common complaints, about prayer is that God seems not to respond to all our prayers. It’s easy enough to understand how someone would come to this conclusion. At every Sunday liturgy, we pray for the sick and suffering, we pray for world peace and an end to poverty and hunger. Week to week, however, there seems to be no substantial change in the world. This Sunday’s prayers will be repeated next Sunday because poverty, war, injustice, and suffering will still exist then.
Does God answer every prayer? The obvious answer to this question is “Yes,” but the nature of God’s response to our prayers might not be so obvious.
Today’s first reading recounts the vocational call of Jeremiah the prophet. God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” (Jer 1:5) Immediately, Jeremiah protested that he was ill-suited to be a prophet. (Jer. 1:6) Evidently, God had anticipated Jeremiah’s reluctance to take up the prophetic vocation; God’s response to Jeremiah’s reluctance was contained in the vocational call itself.
God’s anticipatory response can also be discerned in our prayer.
The content of petitionary prayer ranges from the altruistic to the self-serving. Most people have a keen sense of the injustice and suffering in the world; most would like to see positive change in the world. All of us are aware of the troubles and privations that we face individually. All of this, and more, forms the content of our prayer; not all of it, however, is necessarily in accord with God’s will. One of the things that prevents us from perceiving God’s answers to our prayers is our blindness to what is best for us.
In addition to our personal moral limitations, there are permanent moral limitations on the world in which we live; these, too, make it difficult for us to perceive God’s response to our prayers. In many of our prayers, it is not we who protest the burden of evil but rather, it is the world around that refuses to listen to God’s commands. Jeremiah remained a reluctant prophet throughout his life; the universe in which we live remains a reluctant participant in redemption. Injustice, suffering, sin, and death are woven into the fabric of creation; these will always be with us.
We might well ask, then, if there is any compelling reason to pray. If our capacity to know God’s will is so limited, and the world’s capacity to cooperate with God’s will is so limited, why should we pray? Again, there is an obvious answer and a less obvious one. The obvious answer is that we should pray always, everywhere, about everything because doing so is an act of faith in God. The less obvious answer comes closer to the point.
The limitations of the world will remain until the day of Resurrection. Our personal limitations will also remain unchanged until that day. The primary reason we pray is neither to change the world nor to change ourselves. The primary reason we pray is in order to hear the answer God has already given.
God anticipated Jeremiah’s protests before Jeremiah protested. Consequently, God gave an anticipatory answer to Jeremiah’s reluctance to be a prophet; God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” (Jer 1:5) God’s primary goal was to create and nurture a covenant relationship with Jeremiah (and all God’s People). This is the reason to pray: in prayer, we discover the relationship that God wishes to create and nurture with us.
It is entirely legitimate to ask God’s help for those who suffer and for ourselves. We should continue to ask God’s help, even when the circumstances of the world do not change. When we are faithful to daily prayer, even in the face of suffering, we begin to discover the God who has already spoken to us. When we ask God’s help for those who suffer and are unjustly burdened, for example, we discover the God who is present to us when we cry out in need.
Some things can change, others can be changed, and still others will not change. In all things, God waits for us to encounter God’s loving presence.