“Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer” -Evagrius Ponticus
There are often times in our lives when God doesn’t seem to be answering our prayers. We pray repeatedly for certain people or intentions, sometimes for days, months—and even years—but our prayers seem to go unanswered. When nothing seems to be happening, it is easy to feel weary and disheartened.
For the past several years, my husband and I have been praying for a specific situation that has only gotten more frustrating and bleak. At Mass during the first week of the Lenten season, I heard the words of Jesus to his disciples, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (emphasis added).
After praying with this reading throughout the week, I heard the following words in my heart: “keep knocking.”
I took this as a reminder to persevere in prayer. Whether or not we think God has answered our prayers does not change the fact of who he is: a good Father who knows what we need. Our intention to pray should not spring solely from the fact that we need something, but from our desire to strengthen our relationship with God and to be transformed and conformed to his will in the process.
The Catechism summarizes it well when it says, “prayer is a battle” (2725). I’ve found this to be true on multiple fronts.
First, it’s a battle to even set apart time to pray each day. It often seems that I don’t have time or that there are so many more important things to do. This year for Lent, I’ve decided to set apart the first 10-15 minutes of my children’s naptime for quiet prayer. This puts to practice a fact I already know intellectually: prayer gives my days purpose and meaning. Another opponent we fight in the battle of prayer is distraction. I often find that as soon as I commit to prayer time, my mind wanders or suddenly races with things to do. It’s normal to experience distraction in prayer. When this happens, simply bring yourself back to the present and don’t give the distraction too much attention. Other times, my prayer life seems dry and dull. It feels hard to pray and I don’t even have words to say. Additionally, we can experience something that might be the hardest of all: seeming silence in response to our prayers.
The Catechism extrapolates, “Our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness…disappointment over not being heard according to our own will…To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance” (2728).
Anything of merit is proven in times of hardship: our commitment to marriage, our love for our family, our life of faith, our dedication to a cause or ideal. We are unable to excel in an endeavor if we’ve never practiced. That is why my husband jokes that he will never pray for patience, because he doesn’t want to be presented with opportunities that will invite him to grow in that particular virtue. The Catechism speaks on this as well, “Filial trust is tested - it proves itself - in tribulation” (2734).
Occasionally, we might not receive an answer to prayer immediately because the repeated action of prayer will make us grow in some way: in charity, in perseverance, in faith. The Catechism goes on to ask, “Are we asking God for ‘what is good for us?’ Our Father knows what we need before we ask him, but he awaits our petition because the dignity of his children lies in their freedom. We must pray, then, with his Spirit of freedom, to be able truly to know what he wants.” (2736)
Perhaps we are praying for something that is not good for us. Or, even more likely, for something that is not best for us. Our prayers may be pure, well-intentioned, and holy, but may only partially supply what we, or the people we’re praying for, need. We often can only see part of the whole picture; our ways are not God’s ways.
An example of this can be found in the story of St. Monica, who prayed for her son, Augustine, for 17 years before he was baptized and entered into the Catholic Church. In the midst of her prayers for the conversion of her son, Augustine snuck out of her care and escaped to follow his worldly pursuits in Rome. At the time, this was devastating to Monica, who only saw his continued descent into a life of sin. But it was in Rome that St. Augustine met St. Ambrose—the spirit-filled bishop who was a major catalyst in Augustine’s conversion.
This example shows a good prayer that was seemingly unanswered. God did not seem to be “listening” to Monica’s pleas for her son to stay with her. Instead, he used a hopeless situation to bring about an even more powerful encounter that led to Augustine’s salvation.
God never fails to hear our prayers. Said again, our prayers are always heard. By praying for something repeatedly, we grow in our charity for others, in our perseverance, and in our faith. St. Augustine himself reminds us of this, “God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give.” The more difficult prayer is not to pray for what we want or think we want, but to pray for God’s will to be done, as Jesus teaches us in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The goal of prayer is a deepened relationship with and the love of God. We need prayer because we need God. Prayer is meant to change and transform us to be more like Christ, who lived in complete unity with the will of His Father. As the Catechism reminds us, “Against our dullness and laziness, the battle of prayer is that of humble, trusting, and persevering love” (2742).
As we continue to grow in our understanding and practice of prayer this Lent, I invite you to persevere in the “battle” in order to say with Christ, “not as I will, but as you will.”
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Kate Fowler is the Blog Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center. She received her Master's in Leadership for the New Evangelization from the Augustine Institute.