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Pray not so God will hear you, but so that you will hear God

by Catherine Upchurch
Special to The Leaven

Anyone who has been around children knows how persistent they can be — asking “why” until they receive a satisfactory answer, insisting on just one more story before bedtime and asking for their favorite snack until we give in. We can teach a child to persist when tasks are challenging and praise them for the perseverance they exhibit in learning a new skill.

Persistence is a valuable asset for disciples of Jesus as well — not simply because of its value as a practical matter but because of its value in growing spiritually. When Jesus was teaching his followers about prayer, he shared a parable about a man who went at midnight to ask a neighbor for three loaves of bread to share with a weary traveler (Lk 11:5-8). Naturally, the neighbor calls out that his entire family is in bed and he cannot help him. But Jesus, knowing human nature, says, “If he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” When we feel the door is locked and God is not answering, we are called to persist.

Similarly, in another collection of parables, Jesus tells a story to teach his followers to pray always without becoming weary. In this story, a local judge who was known for his sense of self-importance comes up against a widow who demands he render a judgment on her behalf (Lk 18:1-8). Not prone to exercise his duty, the judge finally gives in to her request because she “keeps bothering” him. Jesus concludes, “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?”

The man who wanted to borrow bread from his neighbor was not asking for himself but was anxious to fulfill a requirement of hospitality for a weary traveler who arrived in the dark of night. The woman who pestered the judge was seeking justice in a real- world situation.

Sometimes in prayer, we cry out to God thinking we know just what we need and just how it should be delivered. But being persistent in prayer allows us to move from getting what we want to what God wants. Many of the psalms reveal this kind of progression that is the result of persevering in dialogue with God.

As an example, many of the psalms that begin in anger with one’s enemies end with confidence in God’s care. The focus shifts from external concerns that are beyond our power (for example, demanding punishment for enemies) to internal trust and a desire for wholeness.

In the prayer that Jesus taught his followers (Mt 6:9-15 and Lk 11:1-4), what we usually call the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” The effect of repeatedly praying these words and focusing on our daily bread, forgiveness and deliverance from evil, is like water washing over a landscape in torrents. Eventually, that landscape begins to change and a riverbed emerges.

In the same way, persistently praying for God’s will to be done, and then recounting what that means, begins to change the landscape of our lives. Such perseverance provides the opportunity to fine-tune what we believe we need, and to adjust our priorities in the process.

Sometimes, we pray thinking that the point is for God to hear us, but perhaps the best result of persistence in prayer is that we learn to hear God. We learn the value of showing up and waiting for God’s voice. We learn to sit with God as we would with a friend, and to be comfortable in silence as well as in dialogue. Eventually, we learn to recognize the ways of God and the patterns of God’s action in our world and in our lives.

Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

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The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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