Owen Higgs explains why we should not shy away from asking God for help through prayer – even for what seem the less important things in life
J.R.R. Tolkien was not a great theologian, but he kept hold of what sophisticated professionals had often lost – hope. Watch The Lord of the Rings, and you see how half the work of evil is done when hope is lost.
Unfortunately the films turn hope into Hollywood can-do attitude. If Christian hope is shown by ‘attitude’, it is the attitude of prayer. And not contemplation, good though that is, but simple prayer – asking God for things which we trust he will give us. Spiritual writers rarely include asking prayer among the highest prayer, but it is the kind of prayer Jesus talked about. When his disciples asked how to pray, Jesus gave them the Lords Prayer, a set of petitions made in the faith that ‘Our Father’ can do what we ask -we ask for things from God because he is our heavenly Father and he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
At God’s mercy
When we pray like this, we take seriously what we say in the Apostles’ Creed; there is one God whom we know as Father through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus knew people asked questions about this kind of prayer. In St Matthew’s Gospel, before he gave the Twelve the Lord’s Prayer, he said that the Father already knows our
needs before we ask him – but Jesus still expected us to pray, as he did himself. Some people think this kind of asking prayer does not really change anything but helps us to think as God thinks. However, in the story of a devil who has to be exorcised by prayer and fasting, Jesus teaches that prayer is powerful and does change things.
Of course when we ask for things in prayer, we don’t always get them. But that follows if God only gives us what is good for us. Indeed, because in prayer we ask God for things we cannot get for ourselves, we are at his mercy. Our prayer implies God can say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ as he chooses.
For some Christians this is obvious, but many shy away from asking for things from God. Why? It can be that the Christian who says God found him a parking space is too self-confident, or even – horror! – unsophisticated. How can he know? people say. Why should God bother to find him a parking place? But why not? We accept God cares for us as individuals. Why should he only care for matters of life and death? It may be that God prefers to help us with the little things in life rather than the big things we think it right to pray about. Indeed, if we were able to tot up the prayers people reckon God has answered, there might be more parking places found than illnesses cured.
Holding on to hope
This is important because prayer for the sick is often the great test of prayer. Many people have prayed hard for a sick person who did not recover. It is understandable if they then turn to a sort of ‘Gefhsemane prayer’- Lord, help me if you want to, but it is all right if you don’t because I don’t really expect anything from you.
Of course, that is not what we are told Jesus said in Gethsemane. He asked the Father for something. What he asked the Father for – to be spared suffering -he probably knew he wouldn’t get. His suffering was part of the Father’s will. Jesus accepted this, not because he had lost hope in the Father, but because he believed the Father preferred to save us through his suffering.
We are also told that during this prayer, sweat like drops of blood dripped from Jesus – this kind of prayer is hard work.
Perhaps it is to keep our hope going that the Father answers the little prayers. Perhaps this is why parishes where God finds parking spaces for the congregation are alive with hope. As Tolkien saw, if we hold on to hope, we can win through.