“Ask a Priest: Does My Prayer Help Anybody?”

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Q: As I am getting on in my spiritual life, stumbling and getting up, a lot of questions and doubts arise in my mind. One such question is, how does my prayer help anybody? If everybody has a free will, and God will not violate anyone’s will, how will my prayers help? Wouldn’t God do what he needs to do for every soul without someone asking him? He loves us more than anyone else. So wouldn’t he do everything on his own accord without anyone asking him? -B.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your note. Let me try to answer your questions briefly.

“How does my prayer help anybody? If everybody has a free will, and God will not violate anyone’s will, how will my prayers help?”

There is no dilemma between praying for someone and God’s will and the other person’s free will. Imagine if you have a flat tire on a deserted road. A husband and wife stop their car, and the husband offers to change your tire for you. His offer of help and his subsequent toil to change the tire don’t violate your free will.

Similarly, by praying for someone, you are trying to help the person. God in turn might offer help the person in one form or another, but ultimately the person still has the freedom to accept or reject the help.

The Church esteems and encourages intercessory prayer. The Catechism in No. 2635 says, “Since Abraham, intercession — asking on behalf of another — has been characteristic of a heart attuned to God’s mercy. In the age of the Church, Christian intercession participates in Christ’s, as an expression of the communion of saints. In intercession, he who prays looks ‘not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,’ even to the point of praying for those who do him harm.”

Now, on to your next questions: “Wouldn’t God do what He needs to do for every soul without someone asking him? He loves us more than anyone else. So wouldn’t he do everything on his own accord without anyone asking him?”

God sees and knows everything — past, present and future. There might be times when God will grant someone help precisely because he has already foreseen that someone would pray for that help. It is good to remember that, in a sense, prayer is also for our benefit — it gives us the chance to recognize our dependence on God and to show our faith in his providence.

There is no contradiction, by the way, between God’s love for us and his foreknowledge of what we need, and the need for prayer.

Imagine a rich man who has a son. The rich man can give his son any material thing he needs. But the father in his wisdom will require his son to work for certain things (an allowance, for instance) or to ask for certain things (to foster a sense of gratitude). The father doesn’t require these things out of a lack of love; rather, it is because of his love that he wants to cultivate certain virtues in his son.

In truth, God gives us plenty of things without our asking. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Long before we could even talk, God was feeding and clothing us, via the help of our parents. At some point, though, he wants us to ask for things, to pray for things, so that we can grow closer to him, to be more aware of our dependence on him, to show our gratitude to him.

Another analogy might help here. Imagine parents who are delighted when their children help out one another, even though the mom or dad would have been able to give the help given by the siblings. The parents, like God, prefer at times to give their children the space they need to become generous with one another.

By all means, try to see your prayers as having a positive value for yourself, for others, and for the glory of God.

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