I was troubled this week on hearing of yet another devout Catholic who was angry and upset that God wasn’t answering her prayers. I just wondered who had been teaching her this warped view of God and prayer. I call it the Royal Court view of prayer, so I had better describe what I mean.
In the old days, the royal court of kings and emperors was often full of people trying to persuade the King to read their petition. They used all sorts of means to get their petition heard, which included trying to get the attention of the king’s officials who then might steer the king in their direction when he was feeling generous. They knew that if they did manage to get their petition heard then the king had the power to grant their request; that he might, if he was feeling like it, put right at a stroke the wrong that they were complaining about, or demote or even execute the person who was making their life a misery. But note that a king like this did it simply because he felt like it. Quote unlike God.
It is astonishing, isn’t it, that this is the image of God that people are using when they spend their time trying to persuade God to answer their prayers. Today in our very well-known Gospel (John 18:33-37) we see why I am so astonished. Here is Jesus standing in front of Pontius Pilate indicating quite clearly that he is not this kind of King. Pontius Pilate, who does have the power of a king, and can kill Jesus or release him, actually asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews” and gets the clear reply “Mine is not a kingdom of this world.” So Jesus as King does have immense and absolute power, as we see expressed in our other two readings (Daniel 7:13-14 & Rev 1:5-8) but not in this world. So to start asking him about things in this world as if he could put them right, as if he were a King of this world, and the Church was a Royal Court, is just plain nonsense.
“But why then” people say “Are we taught to ask God for things in prayer?” Well yes, Jesus does actually tells us to ask, but he also makes it clear that we must ask “in his name”, in other words we may ask for all sorts of things, but it is only if it is what God wants that the reply we will get is the one we want. Too often what we ask for is simply not what is right for us or for the world. As St James says in his letter (4:3) “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
We get this made even clearer when Jesus is praying just before he is arrested and killed. He prays in terror (Matthew 26:39) that he may be spared this suffering, but then he immediately adds “nevertheless not as I will but as you will”
So why does Jesus ask, if he already knows that it is not God’s will? The answer is because he is human, and he experiences fear and pain just like we do. His prayer then is an opening up to God the Father of all the pain and fear he feels; and that is surely why we are told to ask as well, so that all our thought and hopes and fears are shared with God.
If we only share with God what we select to share with him, as if we are out to impress him if we share our good side, or to persuade him if we share our sad side; then we are treating him like a king in a royal court, working out in our minds what kind of prayer is likely to get the answer we want. But the point is that since Jesus did not get the answer he wanted (to avoid the suffering and pain) why should we think that we can? We are told to follow Jesus, not to treat him as a wish-machine to God, or as a magician who can wave his wand and put everything right. Jesus tells us to take up our cross not turn him into a way of getting what we want.
This is why this Feast day of Christ the King is so important. Not only does it show us what true kingship, true leadership, should be like, but it also teaches us the right and the wrong ways to approach God in prayer. God wants us to share everything with him, to say what we like, for he cares for us with infinite love. But we must always do this with the words “Thy will be done” from the Our Father in our minds and hearts. Our sharing, our opening of our hearts and minds, is not so we get our own way, but so he may work in us his will in deep and wonderful ways beyond words. The answer then may come, we may be given new strength or peace to face all the battles of life, but the answer will be his answer not ours. The answer of the one true King does not give us what we want, but what we need to become better human beings.