“Ask a Priest: What If It Seems Prayer Doesn’t Always Work?”

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Q: I am deeply fascinated by the idea of prayer but don’t seem to understand it. I have been brought up to pray, but there are certain things that lead me to doubt that prayer “works.” Firstly, I don’t understand how prayer sometimes doesn’t even work. For example, what if I prayed for the safety of a little child, but the child suddenly dies? Nothing good comes from it, and my prayer didn’t really do anything. It just seems random compared to God actively listening to our prayers. – Kevin

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Good prayer is never wasted. God always hears us. It’s just that sometimes his answer is not what we expect.

We might pray for something, but God might want to give us something better.

In the case of something that seems tragic, such as the death of a child, God might have allowed that because he wanted to draw that child to his bosom sooner than later. A baptized child would already be enjoying heaven. Who would want to take that away from the child?

Then, too, the child’s death might have prompted someone to return to confession, or perhaps it caused family members to end a long-running quarrel and reunite. Thus can God bring something good out of bad.

It’s good to remember, too, that prayer has to be done in the right frame of mind. Sometimes we might take up prayer as though we were approaching a vending machine. We put in our coins (prayers) and we expect the candy bar to pop out.

But God doesn’t work like that. He prefers prayer that is humble and heartfelt and not presumptuous.

Prayer is, in part, to remind us that we are mere creatures who owe everything to God. It shouldn’t be just a means for our getting what we want when we want it. Prayer isn’t a kind of spiritual Amazon.com.

The fact that God doesn’t always seem to respond in the way we want and in the time we want, is a good sign that he is really up there. God doesn’t act in the way we always want. He acts as he wants. He is in charge.

So don’t give up on prayer. Prayer will shape you as a person. Little by little you will learn to accept God on his terms, not yours.

For more reading you might try A Quiet Place: How Daily Pray Can Change Your Life and Opening to God. Also helpful (and hefty) is Part Four of the Catechism. As you pray, so shall you live.

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