Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. —Luke 18: 1
What is prayer? Why should we pray? And does God answer our prayers?
Jesus addresses each of these questions in a parable about prayer, a little story about an unjust judge who ultimately grants the wish of an unrelenting widow. Prayer is characterised here as petitioning God, bringing our requests to God, asking something from God. This is the kind of prayer we Anglicans pray every Sunday during our Prayers of the People. Prayers of this sort are to be found in the pages of A Prayer Book for Australia: petitions for peace among nations, for the unemployed, for rain, and (of course) for birthdays.
But this is only half the meaning of prayer. Properly understood, prayer is not a monologue but a dialogue. In the parable of the unjust judge, the judge speaks to the unrelenting widow petitioning him. Jesus underscores this by saying, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” We fill our prayers with so much talking that we often forget to listen for a response.
As we are taught in our Episcopal catechism, “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” Prayer is a conscious opening of ourselves to God, a two-way conversation both verbal and nonverbal. It is coming into God’s presence with all our being, desiring full communion with God. This is not an easy matter, not something to be achieved without effort, without struggle.
The second of our questions—why should we pray?—also is addressed by the story of the unjust judge. The whole point of the parable is to teach us “to pray always and not to lose heart.” We are to pray not just when we feel like it but without ceasing. Indeed, it is most important for us to pray precisely when we do not feel like it, when we feel the farthest from God. Prayer is what sustains our relationship with God. It returns us to the Lord’s presence, keeping us grounded and properly centred in the ultimate reality, which is God.
The third of our questions—does God answer our prayers?—is addressed in the parable when the unjust judge responds to the persistent entreaties of the widow. Jesus then asks, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” But God does not always respond to our prayers with the answer we expect, nor does he solve our problems with the solutions we have in mind. Often a situation is not miraculously changed, but rather the Lord grants us what is needed to overcome or endure the difficulty. We may not even see the connection between our prayer and the answer God provides.
What, then, is prayer? It is responding to God, having a dialogue with the Lord, coming fully and consciously into the presence of God. Why should we pray? Because prayer is what sustains our faith and grounds us in the reality of the Lord. Does God answer our prayers? Yes, most certainly, and in ways we don’t always see or expect. In the dying soliloquy of King Arthur, as imagined by Alfred Lord Tennyson, we are counselled to lift our hands in prayer. To what end? For what purpose? The answer is at once mysterious and compelling: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.