Prayer of the Amateur—the “Gimme” Response

Posted August 22, 2012

John H. Hampsch, cmf

Everybody enjoys that endless litany of knock-knock jokes. So let’s try one now. Here goes. “Knock-knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“Art who?”

“Artcha gonna let me in?

If that quip seems schmaltzy, it’s because it’s original; I tried to parallel it with a biblical knock-knock that is reminiscent of Jesus’ appeal in Revelation 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, Iwill come in and dine with that person, and they with me.” In colloquial paraphrase, Jesus is simply saying, “Artcha gonna let me in?”  This plea is portrayed in the classic painting of Jesus knocking on a cottage door which has no latch or knob on the outside; it must be opened by the occupant from within. It clearly pictorializes the Lord’s way of saying, “Artcha gonna let me in?—because only you can!” God never forces an entry.

By way of counterpoint, there is another “knock-knock” passage in Matthew 7:8: “To the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” This passage depicts God responding to our knocking (the most urgent and insistent form of petition after asking and seeking).

In the first knocking, it is Jesus seeking entry to give; he offers to give of himself in a divine banquet-sharing of grace. In the second knocking, it is we, seeking to receive, not to give; we want him to open the door to our pounding barrage of requests. We knock for him to open the door to come out and provide us with what we have been asking and seeking.  Both forms of “knocking” are good, of course; but ask yourself, which is greater—opening to let Jesus share his divine life with us, or pleading for him to open to us to provide for us our self-focused petulant demands? Prayerfully and carefully reviewing these two kinds of knocking can help us, not to exclude, but to prioritize the various dynamics of our prayer life.

There’s a quizzical Greek proverb that says, “When the gods are angry with a man, they give what he asks for.” That quaintly harsh aphorism may have inspired Socrates to suggest a form of petition that draws a less imperious response: “Pray for blessings in general, rather than in particular,” he urged, “for the Deity knows our needs better than we do.” (That almost pre-quotes the words of Jesus inMatthew 6:32: “Your heavenly Father knows your needs.”)

But even asking for “blessings in general” is a form of petition, and petition (also called impetration) is, unfortunately, almost the only form of prayer in which most people engage. Of course, everyone’s prayer life must certainly include a goodly portion of petition as an expression of dependence on our Creator for our needs. God’s word is replete with countless admonitions to plead with him to keep supplying our needs—to “give us our daily bread.” However, we must never forget that Christian prayer in general entails far more than mere petition, as the section on Prayer (Part Four) of the Catholic Catechism so beautifully explains.

And Jesus spells out this dimension of our relationship with God by showing how we must surcharge our petitions with faith, confidence, humility, etc. Just as an infant depends on a parent for sustenance and almost every basic requirement for life, so we must depend on our Father in heaven, begging him to “give us our daily bread.” (That phrase is a synecdoche for all our needed resources.)

Petition prayer that is directed to the needs of others is more charity-enriched than prayers for one’s own needs; this altruistic prayer is called intercession. It even enhances the power of our petitions for our own needs, as implied by the words ofJames 5:16: “Pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

It is imperative that we thoroughly grasp the truth that a full and rich spiritual life of prayer requires far more than our prayers of petition—important as they are—and  that petition prayer is not the highest form of prayer. Notice that before we ask for our daily bread, we are taught to pray that God’s name be hallowed, that his Kingdom come and that his will be done. In more mature souls prayer is broad enough to include much that is beyond petition (also called impetration). A mature prayer life includes frequent and fervent “soul surges,” such as the exercise of trust, love, worship, holy surrender, contrition, adoration, praise, thanksgiving, etc.

Here is a maxim that very few Christians ever face with ruthless honesty: If your prayer life consists primarily in prayers of petition, then your spirituality is operating at the kindergarten level.

The great spiritual director, Cardinal Fenelone, recommend this broad-ranged prayer: “Tell God all that is in your heart, as you would unload your heart to a friend—not just your trials and suffering, but also your pleasures, joys and fulfillments.” The prophet Kahil Gibran bemoaned the typical narrowing of the life of prayer: “You pray only in distress and need; would that you would pray in the fullness of joy and in your days of abundance.”

Realistically, we can’t expect either prophets or theologians to enlarge the thinking of the average man-on-the-street, whose entire religious experience consists typically in begging his Maker to give him something. Like an infant, the average pray-er seeks to receive from the Lord rather than to give to him. So let’s accommodate our discussion to that limited myopic view that sees–but can’t seebeyond—the “ask-and-you-shall-receive” promise of the Lord. The all-too-typical kind of soul, locked into the always-asking kind of prayer, an “ever-yearning” type of soul is constantly squandering multiple opportunities to grow in holiness. A closer look at this will show why.

The first problem, says St. James, is not asking at all: “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). The second problem (more common) is that, when we do ask, we may be asking for the wrong things or with inferior motives: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3). Thus, the “what” of our request will often reflect the “why” of that request. The “why” is the motive, which may be good or bad or even neutral, (neither good nor bad).  All of these factors will generally determine how God responds to our requests (usually, by the way, giving preference to our needs over our wishes; “Your heavenly Father knows your needs” [Matt. 6:32]). (As a pundit once quipped, we are told to ask for our daily bread, not our daily cake!).

There are conditions, of course, for successful petition, such as a high level of expectant faith (Mark 11:24), heartfelt forgiveness of all of our enemies (v. 25), requesting only what God wants, not just what we want (1 John 5:14), etc. (See my booklet or CD album, When God Says No—25 Reasons Why Some Prayers are Unanswered.)

I think it was Norman Vincent Peale who said that God answers absolutely every sincere prayer in one of three ways: “YES,” “NO,” or “WAIT.” If he says “yes”, it may be “yes” to our appeal, but perhaps “no” to our motive—as when we ask for the right thing (e.g., prosperity) but for the motive of avarice or materialism; this is “asking wrongly,” or “asking amiss,” as St. James phrases it.

Conversely, God may say “no” to your request, and “yes” to your ultimate motive, which he sees as good. In this case, he may ignore your choice of “what” and gives you another “what.” For example, he may refuse to heal you miraculously, but he may effect a cure by guiding you to the right doctor, medication or treatment.

The exercise of trust in this type of divine response is most demanding; it’s trusting God to do things his way—ultimately the best way—he agrees with the popular truism, “Father knows best.”

If God says “yes” to both the “what” of your faith-filled petition (for instance, cure of your terminal cancer) and also the “why” behind it (for instance, to convert your agnostic son by this miracle), then God’s “yes” answer comes just as you requested. If the answer is “no,” then your non-cure will result in something better than your hoped-for cure—as Paul experienced when he accepted God’s triple “no” in response to his “thorn in the flesh” problem (2 Cor. 12:9).

If the answer is “wait,” while your faith remains steadfast, then the prayer will be answered in any of thousands of ways, but always in God’s timing, not yours; it may prevent future family disasters, incite multiple conversions, and increase your own heavenly reward. (Incidentally, God’s response is never “wait” when your petition is for the grace of your own sincere repentance.)

If God’s response is “wait”( unprovoked by any faith weakness on your part) then the “hold” period should be used to sustain and increase your trust, like that of the importuning widow of Luke 18.

No matter which approach the Lord uses to respond to our yearning, we are like bears in a salmon rush—the opportunities for growth in holiness are plentiful, though most are missed altogether.

Our deepest yearnings of the heart, such as wanting health, prosperity, friendship, a good job, etc., serve an ulterior purpose. Besides being opportunities for trust; they are designed by God to stimulate even deeper yearnings that reach further than our superficial earthly needs. At this point the mystical words of the psalmist come alive: “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).

That mystical mind-set of the psalmist is not experienced by shallow souls. It is found only in grace-rich souls whose most urgent pleadings are always overlaid with deepest yearnings for God’s will in every aspect of their life. Only in mature souls are the words, “Thy will be done” never eclipsed by a hidden drives that really want to scream, “My will be done!”

Persons who are that intimately aligned with the will of God find that their list of petitions almost miraculously grows shorter and shorter, since God runs to fulfill their needs even before they can ask—especially when they yearn for God’s will as their highest priority. At that point, petition prayer becomes less important to them, while prayers of praise, thanksgiving, adoration, worship and love attain priority in their relationship with their Creator. That’s when they experience the ineffable joy and peace of God’s will being done in their life on earth “as it is in heaven.”

Persons who follow Paul’s injunction (Col. 3:2) of remaining always heaven-focused more than on earthly needs, will find less and less need to ask for things, as they find greater and greater fulfillment in union with God himself. Their prayer life moves less and less toward  anxious begging of favors, and more and more toward praise, thanksgiving, adoration, trust, holy surrender in all of their adversities, sickness and hardships. Their prayer becomes less and less of asking what God can do for them, as it shifts to seeking more and more of what they can do for God. Suffering morphs into holy abandonment, anxiety morphs into ineffable peace, anguish morphs into a type of love that can only be called ecstatic.

At this stage, the soul does less knocking at God’s door, and more opening to Jesus knocking at the beloved’s door. When welcomed through that door into a joyous encounter with his treasured one, the gentle Master settles in to share with such a soul, as he did in visiting Martha and Mary, a banquet of ineffable love.

The experience of such a super-enriched prayer life brings needs that aren’t even sought, wishes that were never requested, and a fulfillment in the life of grace that is utterly ineffable.

Witnessing souls in that state of prayer leaves the angels of God gasping in celestial amazement!  For humans in that state of prayer, nothing is more humanly fulfilling this side of heaven itself!


Claretian Teaching Ministry

20610 Manhattan Pl. #120
Torrance, CA 90501-1863
Phone: 1-(310)-782-6408