Teach Us to Pray: Week 9
Augustine: “Trusting God When We Pray”
Augustine gave this advice in a letter to Proba, a Christian noblewoman, who was seeking advice on how to pray. He gave her much advice, but perhaps the most profitable is how he advised her to desire the Lord above all things (Psalm 27), and accept trials even when others who do not follow the Lord seem to prosper.
Why, then, are our desires scattered over many things, and why, through fear of not praying as we ought, do we ask what we should pray for, and not rather say with the Psalmist: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple?” (Psalm 27:4-6) For in the house of the Lord all the days of life are not days distinguished by their successively coming and passing away: the beginning of one day is not the end of another; but they are all unending in that place where life has itself no end.
In order to obtain this true blessed life, He who is Himself the True Blessed Life has taught us to pray—not with much speaking, as if our being heard depended upon the fluency with which we express ourselves, seeing that we are praying to One who, as the Lord tells us, knows what things we have need of before we ask Him (Matthew 6:7-8). While it may seem surprising, He who knows before we ask Him what things we need has nevertheless given us exhortation to prayer in such words as these: “Men ought always to pray and not to faint;” setting before us the case of a widow who, desiring justice against her adversary, did by her persevering entreaties persuade an unjust judge to listen to her, not moved by a regard either to justice or to mercy, but overcome by her wearisome importunity. We might be admonished how much more certainly the Lord God, who is merciful and just, gives ear to us praying continually to Him, when this widow, by her unremitting supplication, prevailed over the indifference of an unjust and wicked judge, and how willingly and benignantly He fulfils the good desires of those whom He knows to have forgiven others their trespasses, when this suppliant, though seeking vengeance upon her adversary, obtained her desire (Luke 18:1-8).
Accordingly, we know not what to pray for as we ought in regard to tribulations, which may do us good or harm; and yet, because they are hard and painful, and against the natural feelings of our weak nature, we pray with a desire (common to mankind) that they may be removed from us. But we ought to exercise such submission to the will of the Lord our God that if He does not remove those vexations, we do not suppose ourselves to be neglected by Him; but rather, in patient endurance of evil, hope to be made partakers of greater good, for so His strength is perfected in our weakness.
God has sometimes granted the request of impatient petitioners, as in mercy He denied it to the apostle. For we read what the Israelites asked, and in what manner they asked and obtained their request; but while their desire was granted, their impatience was severely corrected (I Samuel 8). Again He gave them, in answer to their request, a king according to their heart, as it is written, not according to His own heart. He granted also what the devil asked: namely that His servant, who was to be proved, might be tempted (Job 1-2). He granted also the request of unclean spirits, when they besought Him that their legion might be sent into the great herd of swine (Luke 8:32).
These things are written to prevent anyone thinking too highly of himself if he has received an answer when he was urgently asking anything which it would be more advantageous for him not to receive, or to prevent him from being cast down and despairing of the divine compassion towards himself if he be not heard … when, perchance, he is asking something by which he might be more grievously afflicted, or might be by the corrupting influences of prosperity wholly destroyed. In regard to such things, therefore, we know not what to pray for as we ought.
Accordingly, if anything is ordered in a way contrary to our prayer we ought—patiently bearing the disappointment and in everything giving thanks to God—to entertain no doubt whatever that it was right that the will of God and not our will should be done. For of this the Mediator has given us an example: inasmuch as, after He had said, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” transforming the human will which was in Him through His incarnation, He immediately added, “Nevertheless, O Father, not as I will but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). Wherefore not without reason are many made righteous by the obedience of One (Romans 5:19).
But whoever desires from the Lord that one thing (Psalm 27:4) and seeks after it, asks in certainty and in confidence, and has no fear lest when obtained it be injurious to him, seeing that without it, anything else which he may have obtained by asking in a right way is of no advantage to him. The thing referred to is the one true and only happy life, in which—immortal and incorruptible in body and spirit—we may contemplate the joy of the Lord forever. All other things are desired, and are without impropriety prayed for, with a view to this one thing. For whosoever has it shall have all that he wishes, and cannot possibly wish to have anything along with it which would be unbecoming. For in it is the fountain of life, which we must now thirst for in prayer so long as we live in hope, not yet seeing that which we hope for, trusting under the shadow of His wings before whom are all our desires, that we may be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of His house, and made to drink of the river of His pleasures; because with Him is the fountain of life, and in His light we shall see light, when our desire shall be satisfied with good things, and when there shall be nothing beyond to be sought after with groaning, but all things shall be possessed by us with rejoicing.
~ From Letters to Proba