By Bill Carroll
One of the most profound responsibilities we have as Christian people is to persevere in prayer. Prayer is by no means limited to petition and intercession, in which we come before God for our own needs and those of others, but these forms of prayer are central to the life that we are called to live.
More broadly, prayer means paying attention to the presence of God. It means listening for God and responding to God, by our words, deeds, and silence. Prayer means giving thanks for God’s many gifts, taking refuge in God’s promises, and adoring God’s goodness. It means seeking God’s will and offering ourselves up for God’s purposes. Petition and intercession are but one dimension of a relationship with God that is much broader and deeper–and far more meaningful.
At the same time, however, there is something paradigmatic about the prayer of petition and intercession. If to focus exclusively there might seem narrow and self-absorbed, to neglect it entirely would be to forget our profound spiritual poverty. It would be an attempt to escape our status as God’s children–fragile, dependent creatures, who come before God in need of many things. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, the paradigm for all Christian prayer, we ask God for our daily bread. We ask God to meet our material needs, as well as less tangible needs like the forgiveness of sins.
Even though the prayer of petition is more risky than intercession, because it is focused on ourselves, it has a lot to teach us about grace and life in the Spirit. Persistently bringing our needs before God will teach us, as nothing else can, the difference between what we want and what we truly need.
If prayer is always answered, as indeed it is, then it takes the gift of discernment to understand God’s answer. For often, God’s response to our prayer does not take the form we thought it would. Petition teaches us to seek God’s perfect will, to align our wills with God’s will, and to seek only those good things that God wants for us.
In the end petition reaches out beyond itself to those other forms of listening and paying attention to God that make up a complete life of prayer. Truly, through petitionary prayer, we discover the meaning of Peter’s words in his epistle: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”
But, we might object, our prayer life is so weak. At times, it is so self-serving and mercenary. I suppose it can be, especially if it becomes a mere wish list, rather than an act of listening for God. But how else are we to cast our cares and anxieties upon God, if we do not name the profound longings of our hearts? In fact, it may be especially important to name these needs, when they turn out to be vain, illusory, or misunderstood. For then, we are thrown back on our relationship with God. We assume a more humble posture before the throne of grace and discover, again and again, the abundant mercies of our God.
When our prayer is weak, as it often is, we also discover the power of praying for one another. Our brothers and sisters can hold us in prayer through times of difficulty and doubt. In the end, it’s all about relationship. If we are open to this gift, we can discover a depth of love that is itself an answer to prayer, a form of divine response to the deepest longings of our hearts.
In the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, we see Jesus himself praying for us. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus lifts us all up into the presence of God, asking his Father to protect us in his Name, so that we may be one, even as he and the Father are one. The words of Jesus in this powerful prayer summon us to become what we already are, a united Body, gathered in the Spirit, sharing his own relationship with God. In the prayer, Jesus reminds us that we belong to him and therefore to God. For we have been given a Name that the world cannot take away.
In these days after our Lord’s Ascension, we remember that Christ has entered into heaven on our behalf. Now he prays for us, day and night, within the heavenly temple. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, which is not so much a place, as a position of authority near to God’s own heart.
By his Ascension and exaltation to the Father’s right hand, Jesus consummates the purpose of the Incarnation. He brings our very flesh–the fullness of our humanity–into the near presence of God. In so doing, he brings our brokenness and all our various needs before God. And we have his promise–his sure and certain promise–that no matter what the world may bring, no matter what may happen to us, God will hear and answer our prayers. Perhaps not always in the ways we want, but in the ways we truly need.
And so, brothers and sisters, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. ”
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.