It is a natural response to a deeply felt need, in anyone with any Christian sensibility, to ask God to meet it through his mercy. It is need of self or others that opens up the emotional and mental life to the presence of the divine. Awareness of need and awareness of God go together. A healthy member of an affluent society does not naturally turn to God in prayer; but personal or family crisis can soon bring him to his knees. In this month of ‘Rogation’ and the seeking God’s blessing on creation and the work of men’s hands it is timely to reflect on how the prayer of asking plays its part within the economy of God’s grace.
First, asking need not necessarily be intercession. Some of the most profound Christian prayers are prayers of asking for the self; the prayers known as the prayer of St Francis and the prayer of St Benedict are two well-known examples. They meet the criteria that Jesus set out as being necessary for faithful, effective prayer of asking. They ask for something ‘in my name’ – a petition in harmony with the will of Jesus. They also ask to meet needs that other believers recognize as arising out of a desire to serve the Lord and not the self. Jesus’ teaching that where ‘two or three gather in my name and agree’ (Matthew 18.19–20) is crucial to understanding how the prayer of asking works. It cannot work (that is to say be answered effectively by the Lord) without careful reflection or discussion when this is appropriate. The work of God’s grace is found in the discovery of a common mind and will before this is transposed into a prayer of petition. This is very important for communities of any kind to remember, be it a married couple, a family or a parish community. The prayer of asking is fruitful when it arises out of study of scripture and waiting on God’s word. There is the ancient connection between prayer and fasting. Prayer is a real partnership between God and man and therefore makes demands in every area of human activity.
The letter of James makes some very caustic comments about the prayer of asking. It concludes that the ‘prayer of a righteous man will save the sick man.’ It follows that, although the person in desperate need will seek God with great earnestness, this crisis-driven prayer may not be as faithful as the prayer of asking that arises out of a mind and will formed by the diligent practice of spiritual discipline. The prayer of asking, when faithful, is not so much about changing the mind of God as sharing it.
Nevertheless, the prayer of the faithful should expect to make a difference. It is part of the mystery of the divine–human partnership of the believer in Christ that the prayer of asking plays a real role in the working out of God’s purpose. It is because of this that all four Gospels record Jesus’ commandment ‘to ask’. It is a fact that each person has the possibility of a unique ministry through the prayer of asking, for each person has experiences and insights that cannot be shared with others. In this way, Jesus says, ‘your joy will be complete’ (John 16).
Andy Hawes exercises a ministry of spiritual direction at Edenham Regional House in Lincolnshire. He is parish priest of Edenham, Witham on the Hill and Swinstead.