Let us consider a question – an important one (perhaps indeed the most important of all questions): How should we pray? For what should we petition God? What is it right to ask Him for? Perhaps just as importantly, what is it reasonable to ask Him for? It occurs to me that many problems in our spiritual lives spring from not sufficiently considering this. We all hope that God will answer our prayers, but do we ever stop to wonder whether we’re asking the right questions in them? After all, if you ask a bad question, you’ll get a bad answer. That much is obvious. And it should be equally obvious that if you petition God for the wrong thing – if you ask for something unjust or unreasonable – then He will not be under any obligation to help you achieve it.
So then, what should we petition God for? Above all, we should pray for our will to be in accordance with God’s will, and for our actions to be in accordance with God’s commandments. That is what it is right and just to pray for.
Simple enough? Not so much, of course. If we were back in the Garden of Eden with the first man and the first woman, it would be far easier. But we aren’t, and we face the great complications of the imperfect, fallen world inhabited by our imperfect, fallen kind: temptation and sin. For our will and our actions to be in accordance with God’s intentions, we must avoid sin. And so we may – and we often do – pray for help in avoiding it. This, too, is a right and just thing to pray for. But the older I have gotten, the more I have become convinced that there is a right way and a wrong way to do this; a way that is reasonable and a way that is unreasonable; a way that will find the favor of God, and a way that will not find the favor of God.
What my own experience tells me is this: Every time I have prayed to not be tempted – to not face temptations that I would have to resist – God has not answered my prayers. But when I have instead prayed for the strength to resist the temptations that I have faced, God has been far more inclined to grant it to me. This has convinced me that the former is the wrong thing to pray for, and the latter is the right thing to pray for.
For example: is it really possible to “pray the gay away” as some people contend? I would say it depends on precisely what one means by that. If by that we mean “pray to no longer have any same-sex attractions”, then no it isn’t. If by that we mean “pray for the strength required to not actually engage in sexual activity with someone of the same sex”, then yes it is.
Every time I hear of some televangelist preacher or Republican Congressman who has been caught in a public restroom stall with a rent boy, (and if I assume they were ever sincere about their stated principles in the first place), I cannot help but believe that this was someone who prayed for the wrong thing. They prayed to not be tempted instead of praying for the strength to not give in to their temptations. By failing to do the latter, they never learned how to properly deal with the temptations around them. They prayed not for the strength to fight, but instead petitioned God to not have to fight at all. Thus, when they inevitably did have to fight, as we all must, they did not have the strength to do it, and lost.
John Milton once wrote: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather. That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue, therefore, which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure.” By this he meant that those who simply try to hide from temptation, to close themselves off from it so that they never have to face it, are, like a cowardly knight who can claim that he’s never been defeated in battle only because he’s never actually been in one, neither truly strong nor truly admirable. God does not mean us to hide from the battles with temptation that are a central, inescapable part of the experience of being human – He means us to fight them and win them.
Sons of Adam, the Lord thy God never once promised you an earthly life free of temptation. Even Christ, who committed no sin, still experienced temptation while in human form. Yet in His mercy, God has said that merely experiencing temptation is not a sin against Him. It is only acting on it that is.
But what of the Lord’s Prayer? Does it not include a petition unto God to “Lead us not into temptation”? Yes, but let us read that carefully. It is not a plea for God to remake the world such that temptation does not exist at all, or to remake our own fundamental human nature such that we will never be drawn towards it. That is an unreasonable request; the first man and the first woman made their choice, and we must live with this imperfect world as a consequence. No, it is a plea that we not be led into temptation. Temptation will always exist in this world, and humans will always feel its pull upon us; the question is whether we shall give in to it and walk into the embrace of the things that tempt us, or whether we shall reject it and flee from them. It is the strength to do the latter that the Lord’s Prayer, rightly, petitions God for.
Neoreactionaries say: “It doesn’t matter what you wanted, it only matters what you chose.” Just so; but this can have more than one meaning. In the Puritan* and leftist worldview (leftism is, as I have discussed elsewhere, thoroughly Puritan in its attitudes and worldview**), what a person is thinking is of paramount importance, because sinful thoughts lead to sinful acts. In the Catholic and rightist worldview, the emphasis is placed not on thoughts but on actions. This is why leftist governments tend towards thought control, while rightist governments tend to focus on controlling actions. An example can be found in the concept of “hate crimes” – to the leftist, it is important to know what a criminal was thinking when he assaulted someone; to a rightist, all that matters is that he did assault someone. To the Puritan/leftist, it is people’s motivations that are important; to the Catholic/rightist, it is only the choices that people make, regardless of internal thoughts or desires, that are important.
Choices are a function of the will. Therefore, let us pray for our will to be strengthened, so that we may make the right choices, and undertake the right actions. This, rather than praying to be released from the obligation to ever face temptation or to have to build up the strength of will to choose not to fall to it, is what it is right to pray for. A prayer to be released from this obligation is wrongheaded, unreasonable – it is to pray for the coward’s way out, and God does not mean for His people to be cowards; indeed, in this world filled with temptations of every kind, Christians cannot afford to be.
It took me many years, and many mistakes made, at the cost of many lasting regrets, to learn what to pray for. Brothers and sisters in Christ, I beg you, consider what I have said, and pray wisely.
(*Yes, I know that Milton was a Puritan and held a post in the Cromwell government. He was the only one of them who was worth anything or had any thoughts worth listening to. What can I say? Sometimes good people fall in with a bad crowd.)
(**This is especially true in America. There are very nearly no non-Puritans in America. There are merely right-Puritans and left-Puritans; Christian-Puritans and atheist-Puritans.)