(from “Lift Up Your Heart” by Venerable Fulton J. Sheen)
But as soon as prayer is suggested, there are those who will immediately retort: “Praying does no good.” This statement has an element of truth in certain cases: not theological truth, but psychological truth. When it is said by those who are unwilling to curb their promiscuous habits or to tame their carnality, then the statement “It does no good to pray” is true—but only of themselves.
Their prayers are ineffective, not because God refuses to hear them, but because they refuse to fulfill the first condition of prayer, namely a longing to revise their natures to accordance with God’s laws. To have any effectiveness, a prayer for help must express an honest desire to be changed, and that desire must be without reservation or conditions on our part.
If we pray to be delivered from alcoholism, and yet refuse to stop drinking, it is an acknowledgment that we did not really pray. In like manner, the person who prays to be delivered from sexual perversions and excesses—and that very day deliberately exposes himself to such pleasures—has destroyed the efficacy of the prayer by a reservation. All prayer implies an act of the will, a desire for growth, a willingness to sacrifice on our own part; for prayer is not passive, but is a very active collaboration between the soul and God.
If the will is inoperative, our prayers are merely a list of the things we would like God to give us, without ever asking us to pay the price they cost in effort and and a willingness to change. Prayer is dynamic, but only when we cooperate with God through surrender….
As human friends give us more in proportion as we trust them, and less in proportion to our mistrust, so it is with the Divine Friend. Those who make it possible for God to give more through their trust in Him receive more. In those families where the economic is a primary goal and where prayers are still said, it is very likely that the prayer will be like that of the prodigal: “Give me….” (cf. Luke 15:12) In the other family, where Providence is primary, the prayer is more likely to be that of the prodigal after his conversion, when he said to the father: “Make me….” (cf. Luke 15:19) In proportion as we pray to be more faithful and loving sons and daughters of God, there will be a corresponding bestowal of those gifts that a Heavenly Father can give to His children—whom He loved so much He died for them.
The essence of prayer is not the effort to make God give us something—as this is not the basis of sound human friendships—but there is a legitimate prayer of petition. God has two kinds of gifts: First, there are those that He sends us whether we pray for them or not; and the second kind are those that are given on condition that we pray.
The first gifts resemble those things a child receives in a family—food, clothing, shelter, care, and watchfulness. These gifts come to every child, whether the child asks for them or not. But there are other gifts, which are conditioned upon the desire of the child. A father may be eager to have a son go to college, but if the boy refuses to study or becomes a delinquent, the gift that the father intended for him can never be bestowed. It is not because the father retracted his gift, but rather because the son has made the gift impossible. Of the first kind of gifts, our Blessed Lord spoke when He said: “His rain falls on the just and equally on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). He spoke of the second kind of gifts when He said: “Ask, and the gift will come.” (cf. Matthew 7:7)
Prayer, then, is not just the informing of God of our needs, for He already knows them. “You have a Father in Heaven Who knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:32). Rather, the purpose of prayer is to give God the opportunity to bestow the gifts He will give us when we are ready to accept them.
It is not the eye that makes the light of the sun surround us; it is not the lung that makes the air envelope us. The light of the sun is there if we do not close our eyes to it, and the air is there for our lungs if we do not hold our breath. God’s blessings are there—if we do not rebel against His Will to give.
God does not show Himself equally to all creatures. This does not mean that He has favorites, that He decides to help some and to abandon others, but the difference occurs because it is impossible for Him to manifest Himself to certain hearts under the conditions they set up. The sunlight plays no favorites, but its reflection is very different on a lake and on a swamp.
A person’s prayer often keeps step with his moral life. The closer our behavior corresponds with the Divine Will, the easier it is to pray; the more our conduct is out of joint with Divinity, the harder it is to pray. Just as it is hard to look in the face of someone whom we have grievously wronged, so it is hard to lift our minds and hearts to God if we are in rebellion against Him.
This is not because God is unwilling to hear sinners. He does hear them, and He has a special predilection for them, for as He said: “I have come to call sinners, not the just” (Mark 2:17). “There will be more rejoicing over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine souls that are justified and have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7). But these sinners were the ones who corresponded with His Will and abandoned their rebellion against it. Where the sinner has no desire to be lifted from his evil habits, then the essential condition for prayer is wanting.
“Bearing the fruit of holiness proves to my neighbor that there is a God. It raises me above myself and permits me to accomplish works whose only source is God. It gives my neighbor courage and assurance that he, too, can conquer and overcome.”–Mother Angelica, “On Christ and Our Lady”