Prayer is communal and personal. In communal prayer, we come together with others to listen and respond to God in the stylized rubrics of the liturgy. Personal prayer, on the other hand, is left up to us. However, it is not so open-ended that we can pray however which way we want. There are still guidelines we want to adhere to. One of them is having the proper disposition.
The proper disposition is this: we ask from God, but we must trust that he will be the judge to give us only what is good for us. Christ tells us: “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:9-11)
The point of these verses is that the Father, who is all-knowing, knows what is good for us. Because he is all good, he gives us only what is good for us. For example, we might think a promotion is good for us and we pray for it, but God can see a future where that might be a cause of bad things. A promotion might go to our head and think we are too self-reliant that we forget him. A promotion might bring us more money that could lead us to bad company or frivolous distractions. So a promotion might be the fish we ask for, but it is a snake in disguise. In God’s goodness, he doesn’t give it to us.
In an unprecedented way of thinking of God, Christ taught us to call him “Our Father.” So in prayer, we must be like children – children who put their total trust in our Father.
We also need to remove the idea that if we pray a novena, God must grant us what we ask for. Yes, we must have confidence that God listens and will give us good things, but we must not think that our novenas will coerce him into granting us things just because we prayed for nine straight days.
Christ said: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7) Pagans performed flawless rituals to placate the gods. They thought that if the rituals were performed correctly and often, the gods will be forced to do what they want. This was so ingrained in the pagan ideology that if someone hiccoughed or stammered through the words, they had to repeat it again to ensure an effective ritual.
Doesn’t that remind us of chain letters that promise God will give us what we ask for if we do this and that? (And sometimes there is an appended story of a person who died because he threw away the chain letter away. Talk about pressuring someone into prayer.) If we think this way, we treat prayer as if it were a contract. I do this, God, so you do this for me.
Many times we will hear other say things like: “I claim it in Jesus’s name!” That is good. But it becomes disordered if you think Jesus will give it to you just because you invoked his name in claiming it as if it were a magic spell. If we think like this, we are treating God as a genie who will grant us our every desire when we rub his lamp.
We don’t pray so that God will bow down to our will. No, we pray so we become converted and bow down to God’s will. So let’s not treat it like a recipe to get what we want; let us learn to talk heart-to-heart with God as his children.