Perseverance in prayer

POST BY PGallagher

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Our dialogue with God helps us to come to understand ourselves as not so much thwarted or outsmarted people but as persons on the journey into the life of One whose hopes are different from ours. 


Do you not get the things for which you pray? Have you prayed, for example, for the recovery from illness of someone who seems much too young to die and been disappointed? Have you asked God that peace might come to some war-torn corner of the world only to find that the conflict continues? Have you prayed for the safety of the populations caught up in a natural disaster and then heard of rising death tolls? Some outcomes seem so incontestably desirable that it seems unthinkable that God should at all tolerate the situation which prayer seeks to improve, never mind not grant that for which prayer is steadily offered.

Few of us have not sometimes been disappointed in prayer. Our sadness that things did not turn out as we would have wished can challenge not so much our expectation that things will always go our way as our faith in God being on our side, supporting us and helping us.[1] Jesus teaches us to persist in prayer.[2] Such perseverance will bring results.[3] If importunity eventually wins over an unjust judge [4] how much more will it melt the heart of God who loves us and is on the alert to help us? The call to persistence tells us a lot about prayer and about our faith[5] in God.

Thy will be done[6] we pray in the best of all prayers, and this phrase sums up an important piece of spiritual wisdom. We try to accept whatever happens, good and bad, as being from the hand of God and ultimately part of the loving divine plan. In that spirit, then, is it not wrong to be too persistent, if that means insisting that we know what is best and pressing God to give it to us? The persistence and perseverance which the Lord encourages are not assertions of our superior understanding. The Christian’s pressing on in prayer is in tune with thy will be done. The persistence arises from an attitude of complete dependence on God for what we really need. This is the faith which the Son of Man hopes to find when he returns.[7] That hope could be disappointed.[8] The keeping on asking is therefore necessary not because God is reluctant to give what is good to us but because we are prone to forget to be attentive to what he is really saying to us and to trust what he is actually giving us. This kind of persistence in faith is not at all self-assertive but even rather tranquil. The gift of such faithful prayer helps us to be energetic in our obedience to God’s commands and peaceful in our contemplation of the outcomes.

Like Moses in the face of the Amalekites we raise our hands up begging God for help.[9] There is a hard battle being fought, but there is in Moses and his willingness to struggle a complete faithfulness to what God asks of him.[10] Our prayer naturally includes our needs and concerns, and it brings in those of other people also, those close to us, and strangers linked by our common humanity. We pray for health, for guidance, for family harmony and for peace in the world. We do so persistently. However, if all these things, and our prayers for them, are tied in with our faith in the providence of God then it is equally natural that our life of prayer should lead us into a calm, accepting contemplation of the One in whom all hopes and desires are already satisfied.

We are disappointed when things turn out not as we would wish. Nevertheless prayer drastically modifies such disappointment. Our dialogue with God helps us to come to understand ourselves as not so much thwarted or outsmarted people, who could easily become resentful and bitter, but as persons on the long journey into eternity and into the life of One whose hopes are different from ours. The disappointments of God might also astonish us. That he places himself within our power by hoping for our loving response gives rise to a certain divine vulnerability. Could we think of ourselves as unjust judges arbitrarily choosing to ignore or to accede to the pleas of a petitioner who turns out to be our creator, our saviour and the source of all that is good? The loving God commands us to love him in return knowing perfectly well that love is not commanded. Our persistence in prayer rubs away not at divine inflexibility but at human stubbornness.

In the Mass, especially in the prefaces, the concrete, here and now, needs of the living and the dead blend harmoniously with what is sought by the ageless sacrifice. Our prayers expressed with our imperfect understanding mingle with the prayers of the angels who already contemplate God directly. Our humble submission to the will of God, revealed to us in the scripture,[11] including his instruction to pray persistently for what seems to be needed, draws us into the myriad workings of providence. Our surprise or disappointment at what it appears that God wants become part of this persevering prayer. Natural reactions are not stifled by faith in God but rather incorporated into our loving responsiveness to what he requires of us. Our prayer, particularly, when united in the Eucharist to the sacrifice of Calvary and the prayers of the whole body of Christ in the Church everywhere, incorporates the long history of our mixture of attentiveness and neglect, of faith and infidelity.

Prayer is being offered all the time to give praise and glory to God. Mingled with persistent praise are our many acknowledgements of our needs and our requests for help steadily offered. The requests are part of the praise with all the faith that that implies. Our thanksgiving for God’s goodness to us includes all our reactions to what happens, including those which seem least submissive. Our hopes that situations will improve have as their prayerful framework our trust in God and his providence and our faith that everything ultimately works towards the good.

[1] Psalm 120.5-8

[2] Luke 18.1

[3] Luke 18.7

[4] Luke 18.5

[5] Luke 18.8

[6] Matthew 6.10

[7] Luke 18.8

[8] 2 Timothy 4.2

[9] Exodus 18.12

[10] Exodus 17.5

[11] 2 Timothy 3.16