Have you ever felt like you want to talk to God, but you don’t know what to say, or if your prayers get through? It’s not an unknowable mystery.
Mary is a mug magnet. If she doesn’t break my cup, she absent-mindedly walks off with it. “Here now,” I said, “don’t try to sponge up the mess with those essays. My students will want them back.” She ran for paper towels, and in a few minutes we restored the floor to cleanliness.
She was breathless, not with exertion but embarrassment. I made her sit down.
“I don’t know what happened — I came in and — I saw you were praying so — I turned around to go out and — I must have hit the cup when —”
“That wasn’t prayer, it was sleep. I must have dozed off while I was grading papers.”
“But — you were murmuring —”
“If only you’ll forgive me for —”
“Seventy times seven, but only if you’ll stop apologizing. Now calm down and tell me the reason for your visit.”
“Well — actually I came because of prayer.”
“I’ve been thinking so much about it lately. I’m still new to this Christian stuff. And you’re old. I mean —”
“Thank you. Thinking about it how?”
“Well, I don’t know if I’m doing it right. And why do we pray, anyway? Am I wrong to take up so much of God’s time? Isn’t it selfish of me to ask Him for things? And does it do any good? I mean, doesn’t He already know what we need?”
“Somebody told me I shouldn’t ask anything for myself, only for others. Someone else told me that prayer isn’t to change God’s mind but to change mine, which I don’t get at all. Then someone said I should ‘pray the Scriptures’ and someone else said I should ‘contemplate’ and someone else —”
“Enough!” I laughed. “Tell me where you want me to start.”
“Should I pray at all?”
“Easy one. Yes.”
“For starters, because God tells us to.”
“But why does He tell us to if He already knows what we’re going to say?”
“It’s easier to answer that question if we answer another one first. What do you think prayer is?”
“Asking Him for — no. Talking with Him?”
“Good. I’d say communicating with Him, which usually involves talking with Him because talking is how we humans communicate best. There are ways to pray without words, just like there are ways to communicate with a friend without words —”
“Like kicking her under the table?”
“Yes, or like gazing into his eyes. But you don’t have to use the wordless kind of prayer, and even if you do you shouldn’t give up the talking kind. Now back up. When I asked you what prayer is, didn’t you start to say ‘Asking Him for things’?”
Mary’s color heightened. “Yes, but that’s selfish, isn’t it?”
“Why? Don’t we all have needs?”
“Sure. We need bread, friends, wisdom, patience, comfort, protection from temptations, deliverance, guidance, virtues — all sorts of things.”
“But is it all right to ask for them?”
“Jesus tells us to ask for them.”
“I guess we should just ask once and then shut up.”
“No, He even tells us to ask persistently.” I grinned. “It’s always good to fit our theories to what He says, rather than fitting what He says to our theories.”
“But can’t asking for things be selfish?”
“Sure — if you ask for something you shouldn’t have, for example, or to keep someone else from having it. But asking the right way isn’t selfish. That’s one thing we do in prayer. It’s called ‘petition.'”
“You say ‘one thing.’ What are the others?”
“You’ve probably done some of them already, like praise, adoration, submission, thanksgiving, confession and intercession.”
“I think I could use some examples.”
“You can find some good ones in the prayer Jesus taught His disciples. Praise: ‘Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.’ Submission: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done.’ Confession: ‘Forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven those who sin against us.’ Of course you’ll want to be more specific. Tell Him what sins you’re repenting, how you’re submitting to His will, and so forth.”
“What about the other things you mentioned?”
“Have I left some of them out? Oh, yes. Adoration: how about ‘Father, I love you; please help me to love you more obediently.’ Thanksgiving: ‘Thank you for my friend Sarah, and thank you for the interruption that gave me a chance to cool down just when I was about to lose my temper with her today.’ And of course, intercession: ‘Please help my landlady Mrs. Grundy, who is worried about her son. Please help my Uncle Joe, who is in prison for taking that money. Please help my teacher, who talks so cynically sometimes. If there is something I can do for these people, please help me see what it is.’ Are you getting the idea?”
“I think so. That covers a lot of ground.”
“But not all of it. You can talk with God about whatever is on your mind. Job even complained to Him. Later he admitted to God that he hadn’t understood what he was talking about — but if he hadn’t complained to Him in the first place, would he ever have found that out? I doubt it.”
“Okay, but why does God want us to do all this stuff?”
“All what stuff?”
“Praising Him even though He already knows we love Him, saying ‘Your will be done’ even though He already knows we want it to be done, confessing our sins to Him even though already knows we’re sorry — all that.”
“I don’t know all the reasons, but I can suggest a few. One is that God made each one of us to be a unity.”
“Now you’ve lost me.”
“What I mean is that all of your parts are connected. Thinking, acting, feeling, speaking — they all need to hang together. Could you love God if you never spoke your love to Him? Could you submit to His will if you never put your submission into words? Could you really repent if you never said ‘I’m sorry?’ Are we made that way? What do you think?”
Mary fell into thought. “No, I guess not,” she said. “But why would He want us to ask for things? It isn’t just that He already knows what we need. It’s that He knows what we really need. We know what we think we need.”
“That’s true. But doesn’t having to ask Him for what we think we need help us to learn what we really need? And doesn’t it teach us other things too — like whether we really want them? And even better lessons, like whether we really want Him?”
“Is it like this, Professor Theo? One night when I was little my hair was in a snarl and I couldn’t comb it out. After yanking and yanking and getting the comb caught in my hair, I finally asked my grandmother for help. She patiently combed out the snarl and put my hair in pigtails. When I asked her why she hadn’t helped me earlier, she just smiled and said ‘I thought it would be better for you to ask.’ Somehow that made sense.”
“Yes, that’s how it is between us and God. He could have provided for us the same way that He provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, who receive their worms and colors without asking. But the way He does provide for us is better, don’t you think? The birds and lilies don’t have a personal relationship with Him. He made us in His image just so that we could. He always chooses a personal way of relating to us, even where He might have chosen an impersonal way instead.”
“I’m beginning to get it.”
“Here’s another way to think about it. If I receive bread without asking, I’m glad for bread. If I receive it because I asked, I glory in God as well. Instead of one blessing, I get two. It’s because of His generosity that He makes us ask.”
Just as Mary was about to reply, the tower clock gonged and she came instantly to her feet. “Oh no! I’m late for class! Thanks, Prof! Later!”
She didn’t visit again for several weeks, but a new coffee mug did appear one day in my mailbox.
On one side it said PRAY WITHOUT CEASING.
On the other it said GRADE WITHOUT SLEEP.
Copyright J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.