What Do You Expect of Prayer?

This is a guest post by Laura Tringali.


John Everett Millais, The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow, 1864

Prayer is one of the most fundamental aspects of our relationship with God. It is the communication in our relationship. In prayer, we look to God and share of ourselves with God while God gazes upon us and shares of Godself in return. While prayer is not the only way to encounter God, it is one of the most emphasized spiritual practices in Christian religion.

Crucial to an individual’s sense of trust in God is a belief that God not only hears our prayers but also responds to us. One might argue, what would be the point of prayer if it did not elicit a response from God? In other words, why pray if it is not a dynamic communication between two persons?

What expectations do we bring of God into prayer?

Jesus teaches in the Gospel of Luke that we can be persistent with God in asking for what we need. Take these two parables for example:

“And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.’” (Lk. 11:5-8, NRSV)

“[Jesus] said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (Lk. 18:2-5, NRSV)

Taken in isolation, these two parables seem to indicate that perseverance in prayer ends with the faithful receiving whatever he/she is asking of God. However, we know in practice that this “genie God” or “vending machine God” is not our God. How many times have we prayed for something good, something unselfish, something we believe God should want to give us – a job offer, a college acceptance, healing for a loved one, relief from some sort of suffering or trial –but the outcome is not as we asked? We feel God did not listen. We perhaps feel betrayed or angry.

Following each of these parables, Jesus specifically names what is being asked in prayer and what God gives in response. In the first, Jesus follows up the story with an explanation that God is quick to give in abundance the Holy Spirit to those who ask (Lk. 11:13). At the end of the second parable Jesus says God will “quickly grant justice” to those who ask (Lk. 18:8). Sending the Holy Spirit or granting justice does not necessitate that God will respond in the specific way we request. What outcome can we expect?

St Ignatius teaches that one should pray with indifference. Praying with indifference means striving to separate ourselves from attachments to an outcome, a specific way in which we desire for God to intercede, or a particular result we are seeking from our prayer. Indifference does not mean not caring. How can we be expected to pray without caring about the outcome for the healing of a loved one who is sick or suffering? Rather, praying with indifference asks of us to open our hearts and minds to allow God to be God, to allow God to intercede with the Holy Spirit and with justice. It allows for an openness to experiencing and accepting God’s will rather than imposing our will on God.

The Gospel of Luke also gives us examples of praying with indifference:

“Once, when [Jesus] was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Immediately the leprosy left him.” (Lk. 5:12-13, NRSV)

Prior to being arrested and crucified, Jesus prayed: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Lk. 22:42, NRSV)

Again, consider: What expectations do you bring of God into prayer? Do you approach the Lord with your head bowed to the ground saying: Lord, it is up to you, but here is my desire…? Do you end your prayer with the words of Jesus: “Yet, not my will but yours be done”?

Praying with perseverance and indifference seem to be at odds with one another. Perhaps sometimes they do conflict. It may not always be possible to be indifferent. In fact, perfect indifference may be humanly impossible. While we can be pretty sure that we will not always bring the proper disposition to prayer, we can trust that God’s response will always come with the Holy Spirit and justice even though we may not immediately perceive it or even recognize God’s movements.

Laura Tringali Sobieski, born and raised in Hershey, PA received her BS in Psychology with minors in Nonprofit Studies and Classics at The Ohio State University. She then went on to earn a Master of Theological Studies at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry concentrating in New Testament Scripture. Laura worked for a few years as a Youth Minister and Director of Confirmation at a parish just outside of Boston. She is currently continuing her theological education through Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

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