When someone we know has had cancer, what did we pray for? I’m guessing for the cancer to be defeated, a cure, or health.
I’d like to tell you about Chris and Yanta. These friends of mine are in their 30s, live in Richmond, both Catholic, both accountants, both wonderful people, and got married in 2012. Two years ago, Yanta discovered she had breast cancer. We can imagine their shock, confusion, and fear. Eventually, Yanta had a double mastectomy. In spite of their hardship, there are many beautiful things that God the Father has done in their lives during this time. One of them is that they’ve spiritually matured by leaps and bounds. When they first found out about cancer, they started praying for her good health. But then they prayed, “God help us to accept Your will because You have a plan. And please give us peace,” which, according to Yanta, He’s always done. An even greater grace was when they sent out a message to friends asking for prayers. They were amazed to find friends, who were Catholic but weren’t practicing, praying for her. They saw this as the greatest gift. So, in a moment of grace, Yanta started praying, “Lord, take this as far as You need it to go.” Such a prayer is a prayer of great faith.
We’re talking about prayer today because the Gospel tells us to “pray always and not to lose heart” (Lk 18:1). Jesus gives us a parable about how a widow never stops asking for justice, so much so that the unjust judge gives in. And, since God the Father is so much better than an unjust judge, He too will grant the prayers of those who don’t give up.
But, right away we see a problem: so many people have prayed for things for a long time and never gave up but God never granted it to them. Another question is: why doesn’t God just give us something good right away? Why do we have to keep on praying for it?
The simple answer is this: we pray always because Jesus prays always. We never lose heart because He never loses heart. Jesus is our high priest and always prays for us to the Father, and never gives up. Now let’s break down this answer into two parts:
1) First, the reason we don’t always get what we pray for is because we don’t always pray for what’s best. We tend to pray for temporary things, but God thinks eternally. We all know stories about people who were focused on their jobs and success but neglected their family, relationships, and God. It was only when tragedy struck that they started thinking about reconciling with their family, appreciating their children, or reaching out to Jesus.
There’s a man in our parish, a life-long catholic, who used to be so focused on work that he worked around the clock and completely neglected his family. After working like this for a few years, he woke up one day and totally lost his memory because of the stress he put himself under. He couldn’t remember anything, including his wife and his own house; even today he is still indefinitely on long term disability. At first he was very mad at God and blamed Him for doing this to him. Then he noticed that despite being lost often, people came to him to help without him asking, including strangers at times. Then he realized God sent those people to help him. He actually thanks God now for this illness, because it woke him up. A very tough lesson, but sometimes this is the only way to get through to us who have very hard hearts.
Remember we talked about that woman whose son is very low-functioning autistic? Do you remember her devastation at learning this, and the two years of suffering, depression and confusion? But she now thanks God for her son, because it saved her from a life without God.
This is why whenever you ask me to bless you or pray with you for healing, I always say something like, “Jesus, if it’s your will, please heal them.” Because I’m not sure if Jesus wants to heal you because it might be part of His bigger plan. After all, Jesus Himself, when He was sweating blood because He was so afraid of being tortured and dying on the cross basically said to the Father: I don’t want this, please take it away. But only if it’s Your will.
Today, God the Father is asking all of us to make two shifts in our prayers. The first is to go from praying for things that are good but which God might not want us to have now, to things that are absolutely good. It’s like there are two categories of prayers: 1) things we know for sure God wants us to have: more faith, hope, love, forgiveness, wisdom; for our family to come back to Mass; that everyone loves Jesus; for an end to war, abortion, terrorism; 2) good things but not always things God wants us to have because sometimes He has a bigger plan (E.g. good health, financial security, doing well on our exams, getting the job we want, or advancing in our career).
That’s why Chris and Yanta shifted their prayer to, “Lord, take this as far as You need it to go.” While they still pray for a cure, if it’s God’s will, their first focus is on praying for spiritual growth, faith, and peace. So, whenever we have difficulties, our first prayer should always be to love, and then that God take away the difficulty.
2) Here’s the second part of the answer and the second shift in prayer: not only do we have to pray for the right things, but we have to want it as much as Jesus wants it.
Imagine I (Father Justin) am standing before God the Father and Jesus is next to me. I tell the Father what I’m asking from Him. I say, “Father, please help me be a saint; help me to love my people more; please open their hearts so that they will recognize how much You love them; please help them to love each other; I see so many wounds in their lives; heal their relationships with You and with each other.” (By the way, these are things I really pray for.)
Then the Father asks me, “How much do you want these things?” I answer, “Father, I want them so much.” Then He asks, “But how badly do you want it? What are you willing to give for it?” And I say, “What do you mean?”
Then Jesus, who’s standing beside me, steps in and says, “Father, I want all these things too.” And the Father says to Jesus, “How much do you want these things?” Jesus says, “Father, I give up my life for these things,” and then He holds out His hands with the holes from the nails in them.
The Father turns back to me, “You see, Justin, you’re praying for all these things: for the conversion of your people, that they find true happiness in me, that they come back home, that they find the fullness of life—I want all these things too! But I want them so much that I gave my only Son for these things. My Son wants these things so badly that He suffered horribly and died the worst possible death. We want you to want them as much as we do. You see, from all eternity, we want all of you to come home, and that’s the desire of our hearts, and we’ve given you everything. The reason you should pray always and never lose heart is because we never lose heart! I want you to be willing to give up everything, just as we are.”
This is the second shift all of us have to make: from wanting these things just a little bit to wanting them with all our heart and be willing to make sacrifices for them. Once we want these things with all our heart, we’ll never lose heart when praying.
There’s a great story about St. John Vianney. Another priest comes to him complaining that his parishioners are lukewarm. And St. John says, “You’ve preached? You’ve prayed? Have you fasted? … Have you slept on bare boards? As long as you haven’t done that you’ve no right to complain.”
There’s an idea that I find very helpful here, borrowed from Eric Thomas, a famous motivational speaker. Speaking to youth, he says, “Most of you say you want be successful but you don’t want it bad, you just kind of want it. You don’t want it bad [like] you want to party. You don’t want it as much as you want to be cool. Most of you don’t want success as much as you want sleep.” That’s a good point: many of us want certain things, but don’t want them badly; we say we want them, but not much.
I remember a Jesuit, following the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola, said that, whenever we ask something from God, we should accompany our prayer with an external sign of our sincerity and authenticity, a sign to God and to ourselves. This sign tells us that we’re serious about what we’re asking for. For example, I believe it was in 2005 that my grandmother had a stroke. I prayed that she would survive so that she would go to Confession, which she hadn’t done for most of her life, and make peace with God. So, remembering this teaching of the Jesuit, I decided to never eat my favourite breakfast food ever again. I won’t tell you what it was, but suffice it to say, I would eat this for breakfast every single morning and even look forward to it the night before. But, as a sign that I truly wanted my grandmother’s conversion, I made this little sacrifice. To this day, whenever I see this food (but not eat it), I thank God for whatever He did in my grandmother’s life; I’m not sure if she reconciled with God—that’s known to God.
Whatever we’re asking from God, let’s make a little sacrifice to accompany it. For example, doing some extra prayers, going to an extra Mass, fasting, making a novena, giving alms or making a donation, Stations of the Cross, or a pilgrimage (CCC 1434-39).
This is such great news! God the Father is asking us to make two shifts in our prayers: 1) To always pray for things that are absolutely good and to trust that He’ll grant our other prayers if they’re part of His bigger plan; 2) To want what we pray for with all our heart and be willing to make sacrifices for them.
We never lose heart because God never loses heart. We pray always because Jesus prays always.