When my mother was in the hospital, I disliked the chaplains who came to pray beside her bed. Some of them were friends, and they only meant to do good, to be loving and kind.But they kept asking God for things. For her healing, for guidance for the doctors – all practical and needful things. Still, I had a bad feeling. Although there were constant spikes of hope, I guessed that she was going to die. Hope was timorously held onto, but every day there were new setbacks, and she slipped away from us more.
What should the chaplains have asked for? Doesn’t Jesus tell us to ask, and it will be given unto you, to seek and ye shall find? Aren’t we supposed to approach prayer like a man in the night, knocking for bread at a friend’s door? Yes, we are. But, curiously, Jesus doesn’t say that we will get the things we ask for. In response to prayer, we are promised the Holy Spirit, and little else.
This is the same thing that Paul is saying in Philippians chapter 4, verses 4-7.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ.
We are told, very clearly, to present our petitions to God, but again, we will not be answered by a fulfillment of our wishes. Instead of getting the things we ask for, we’ll get the peace of God, which transcends all understanding. We’ll get a sense of the Holy Spirit abiding with us, and filling us, and quieting the raging of our hearts.
So why do we pray, and pray for specific things? We pray to lay our own desires bare, to be entirely honest about what we want and think we need. Voicing our prayers is a form of self knowledge, a clearing away of the anxieties of the self so that we can stand quietly and experience the peace that God provides as an answer to our prayers.
My friends the chaplains were not wrong to ask for my mother’s healing, or guidance for her doctors and nurses. They were simply stating what we clearly wanted. It was hard, there in the ICU, with machines beeping and the susurrus gasp of her labored breath, to sense the Holy Spirit, and to find peace with what was happening to my mother. But the prayers were answered. Not in the moment, and not because of a miraculous recovery, but in the months and years since, when peace and a sense of the Holy Spirit have become more and more present in my life.