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 | By Father Mike Schmitz

When it feels like my prayers don’t do anything

I’ve been told that I can pray to God, and that he hears my prayers and answers them. I’ve been frustrated though, because it seems like it doesn’t do anything. Am I missing something?

This is a great question, not only because it reveals you are aware of God’s desire that we turn to him in our need, but also because you are acting on this and actively reaching out to him. All prayer is “good prayer.”

And yet, what are we looking for in our prayer? And who exactly is it that we are approaching when we pray? These two questions might seem superfluous, but they are essential in order to understand why it is that we become upset when God doesn’t give us what we want.

First, it is important to remember that our prayers do not “change” God. God is perfect and does not change. Of course, this raises the question: Then why ask God for anything at all? The short answer is that God is good and always wills our good. At the same time, God wants to include you in his plan of bringing his blessings to the world. When we pray, not only are we spending time with our Father and coming to know his heart more intimately, but praying increases our desire for his will to be done and allows us to actively participate in his mission to bring his grace to this world.

Prayer is the honor that God extends to us. He allows us to be his coworkers in his plan of salvation.

Yet it can feel like we aren’t heard when we ask God for help. And we can be sorely tempted to complain. What do we do with that?

It is in these moments that I am so grateful to the Lord for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, because it asks this exact question. Here is the answer: “In the first place, we ought to be astonished by this fact: when we praise God or give him thanks for his benefits in general, we are not particularly concerned whether or not our prayer is acceptable to him.” (2735)

Have you ever noticed this in yourself? When we are thanking or praising God, we can tend to nonchalantly throw out casual prayers of gratitude. This isn’t “wrong,” but it could reveal a certain attitude toward God that is not really troubled about whether God hears our prayers or doesn’t care if we’ve thanked or praised him properly.

But when we ask for something, our attitude changes dramatically! We make sure that we get on our knees, we fold our hands in what we think is just the right way, we word our prayers in a way that we imagine God will hear the best. Am I the only one who might do this? Probably not. Because it is in those moments that we desperately want something that we treat God seriously.

But do I treat God with that same level of seriousness when I thank him? If I don’t, then this reveals something to me about me. It reveals the image I have of God. God might simply be an afterthought when I’m in times of comfort, and is only necessary for my needs. This is what the catechism goes on to say: “What is the image of God that motivates our prayer: an instrument to be used? or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?” (2735)

What is my image of God? Is he only there to bail me out of trouble? Is God the “divine genie” to whom I turn when I’m desperate? And when I turn to him, who do I think he is? Is he just there to be my 24-hour therapist/ATM? Or is God … God? Is he the God he has revealed himself to be? Does he get to be the Good Father whom we trust? Or does God only get my attention if he gives me what I want?

Maybe there is a little bit of Veruca Salt in every one of us (the spoiled girl in “Willy Wonka” who demanded “I want an Oompa-Lumpa NOW, Daddy!”). But God is our Father. And he is good.

Because of that, he can say “no” and we can still trust him. Because he is Father, he can say “no” because he knows what we need better than we do. And because he is good, we can trust him because he wants what we need more than we do.

Ultimately, we trust God’s answer even when it is difficult, because he knows us better and loves us better than we know and love ourselves.

“Prayer is the honor that God extends to us. He allows us to be his coworkers in his plan of salvation.”

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Ask  Father Mike is published by The Northern Cross.

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