And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. I John 5:14-15
J R R Tolkien begins his creation account in The Silmarillion with the gift of song, given to the Ainur, by which the creator fashions a symphony of free voices which give rise to the world. This theme of co-creation highlights and amplifies the concept of God’s sovereignty in a synergy of human freedom. And I think this is something like what John is declaring to us. What does it mean to “ask according to his will”? If God is sovereign, why pray at all? Is it merely that we can line up with what God wants? So that we can display virtue? What about human desire and human freedom? There are no hard and fast answers here, but perhaps there are hints and suggestions.
There is perhaps no more profound human interaction than that between Jesus, the God-man, and his Mother. And perhaps nothing more mysterious than the conversation between the Theotokos and Jesus at the wedding in Cana. The story is so well-known. The wine had run out. Mary implores her Son. He responds: It’s not time. The account should have ended there, should it not? It does not. Instead, Mary does what most mothers do, and tries it another way. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says to do. Jesus once again could have simply reiterated his point: My hour is not yet come. He did not.
What went on in his heart and mind? Did he change his mind? Or was this a creation of an infinity of goods, any choice being the will of God? Was he merely trying to draw Mary out? Had he already intended the course he took? I cannot say. Perhaps better: I dare not say. From our human perspective, this looks as though the Son of God took Mary’s concern, her prayer, and in a way beyond comprehension wove it into the greater divine freedom.
We can recall another occasion: the Syro-Phoenician woman. She comes incessantly begging Jesus to heal her daughter. Christ puts her off. Tells her no. Offers what appears to be an insult. But she takes the supposed barb, accepts it, and turns it back on our Lord in her plea. Does Christ here change his mind? Is he merely trying to draw her out? Had he intended to heal her daughter all along? I cannot say. But it looks as though Jesus takes her plea and weaves it, beyond our comprehension, into the greater heart of God.
I cannot imagine that God seeks our prayers unless he desires to act on them. And yet, if it’s a matter of hitting the bull’s eye of God’s will in our asking, how could we ever ask aright? In our fallible, sin-distorted, passionate state, how could we ever discern properly and correctly what God’s will is for this or that matter? Or, is it simply, we offer our prayers and hope that some of them will be answered, like throwing things against a wall and hoping they’ll stick? Or, again, is it mostly just God working on us till we only want what he wants?
It may be a little of all these things.
But it seems to me that if God is love, and we have it on authority that he is, then what he delights in is the free giving and receiving of love from his creatures. What father, God says, when asked by his children for bread will give them a stone? And God is our father. Do we not as parents take delight in our children’s joys and weave in their desires and requests to our own designs and plans? Yes we are fallible and sinful and do not always know what is truly good and best for our children. But if in our sinfulness we would not give a stone to the child-request for bread, then neither will God.
No, I do not mean to suggest that all our desires will be granted. Not even the ones that are seemingly good and pure and true. But I do not think it can be that prayer is like the lottery, in which we pray seeking just the right combination of factors such that we align with God’s will and are given what we request. I believe it is much more dynamic than that. We may with joy and thanksgiving present our requests to God, for we know he hears us. And like the Canaanite woman, and the Lord’s blessed Mother, we know that when he hears us he will in love and freedom take our requests and with them create a symphony of grace not only for ourselves but for all the world.
God wants us to pray. To ask him our heart’s desires. It is his nature as a loving Father, to give us those things in which, by his very creation of us, we take delight and joy. Not all such things are for our salvation, true. He alone knows what’s best. A fallen world and our own sinful choices will bring us pain and shape and mold us. We are disciplined because we are loved. But it cannot be that his love would not rejoice in seeing the joy of his children at his generous and gracious gifts.
But here is the greatest mystery and deepest joy of all: these gifts of answered prayer God gives us, even those that seem as though he is changing his mind, do indeed work not only for our salvation but in his mercy for that of the whole world. Did the Mother of God only think she was trying to help a poor newly-wedded couple? No, this was not simply resupplying the wine. It was the first public revelation of the Son of God to the world. A shot across the bow at all the forces of darkness. The beginning of the grand deliverance of mankind. I cannot imagine that the Canaanite woman had anything else on her mind than the seemingly hopeless state of her child. And yet, in this act, Christ opened yet another way for the Gentiles to receive the Gospel, apart from which you and I may never have received such a Gospel. To contemplate that our seemingly small and insignificant joys would be heeded by a God of infinite glory and power is mind-boggling enough. But then to contemplate that this small request is woven into a grander design that topples the demonic hosts and spreads the Gospel of peace, even when we are not aware of it–well, there is nothing left here but to achieve silence.
Let us encourage our hearts in this.