I remember my parents asking for Christmas lists from my siblings and me when we were little. We made a big deal of it, writing all our “Christmas wishes” on red and green notepads my mom had stuck to the fridge. They wanted to hear our requests, to know about the things we were interested in and enjoyed because they loved us and it helped them know us better. As we grew up though, we experienced a natural progression from childish demands to a mature trust and understanding of our family and how we express and receive love best.
We don’t do a lot of asking for Christmas anymore. Those lists have become obsolete, and we take joy in knowing that the gifts we do receive reflect a relationship rather than a list of requirements or desires.
I have a feeling that, as we grow as Christians, this is how prayer is supposed to look, too.
As Christians, if we express a desire for something, often the first thing we’re told is to pray for it. We pray for God to bring a good spouse our way. We pray for healing. We pray for success and prosperity in the things we do. We pray for clarity about God’s will when we make decisions.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
There’s no shortage of things we want. If that’s what prayer is for, then it follows that there would never be a shortage of things to pray for. So what is Paul getting at?
Sure, we’ve got plenty of ideas of things we want or need. But is that all we should be talking about when the Creator of the universe is listening? It seems to me that prayer is about a lot more than listing off personal wishes.
It’s less about God granting me the desires of my heart, or him whispering into my ear his formulas for the unfurling of my future. It is more about him transforming my desires. Transforming my will into his will. Prayer is a way for God to transform my stubborn selfish heart into one of trust and communion with him.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he told them to ask for three things: provision for the day, forgiveness for our sins, and protection from further temptation to sin. Beyond that, we are to pray for God’s will to be done here on earth.
Through reading Scripture and reflecting on the life of the Church, I can say with confidence that God’s will for my life — and yours — is holiness. Exclusively.
But so often I get caught praying for clarity when I have a decision or a worry in the forefront of my mind, when I could be praying for trust that God has ordained what is best for me. I could pray for courage to choose, and faith that God’s Spirit within me is enough to be able to make a decision. I could pray that God would use my decision to bring me to holiness. But instead I pray a lazy and fearful prayer: “Tell me what to do, and tell me what to expect after I’ve done it.”
I’m coming to believe that prayer is less about me getting what I want, and more about God inviting me to want what he wants. To trust that because he knows and loves me deeply, the answers to my prayers will be the ones that I really need and deserve. Answers to prayer will not always be “Yes”. “No” is an answer too.
As we ask the Holy Spirit to purify our prayers, to pray in us when we don’t have the words, God is inviting us not just to make requests, but to be a part of his answers.
The more we know the pure will of God — holiness as reflected in virtues like peace, love, justice — the more our prayers can become informed by his will. And as he answers those prayers, he invites us to share in his victory.