Prayer, a response to God's Call
"We love because he first loved us" 1 Jn 4:19. St. John reminds us with this simple statement a great truth about God. He loved us into existence. He thirsts for our love. Although God desires us to seek Him that seeking is always a response. Prayer is a response to the call of God to enter into communion with Him. Our second reason to develop a stable prayer life is God's call: "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thes 5:17), "Watch and pray" (Mt 26:41), "Pray at all times" (Eph 6:18). Simply stated, we should pray because God asks us to pray.
The Creator of the universe, who created out of gratuitous love, asks us to enter into communion with Him: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Praying is not be based on our desire for God, or our personal initiative, or to receive valuable gifts from Him, but because the One who created us wants us to pray. He knows us better than we know ourselves; therefore, we should trust that He has a good reason for asking us to pray. His plans for us are infinitely beyond anything that we can imagine or desire.
Our prayer life is driven by faith. Faith is obedience to God's invitation, and trust in the One who invites. We cannot even imagine the profoundly positive consequences of a humble and sincere response to this call. If we hope to obtain the graces and gifts that we want from prayer, then we run the risk of being disappointed. The benefits of prayer are neither instant nor measurable nor many times what we want. The gift of prayer is more profound than that for which we ask. Prayer is a relationship of love with God. He is not a grandpa who wants to give us candy. God is a good and loving Father who wants to gift to us eternal life. If we pray with a humble attitude and submit to God's will, then we will always have the grace to persevere.
We will persist through the times that are dry and difficult because we trust in the One who has asked us to pray. We know He is close to us even in the times we do not recognize or feel it. Prayer deepens this trust while at the same time relying on it to help us persevere. This attitude of loving, trusting obedience is most profitable for our prayer life. Prayer will be abundant and beneficial to the degree that we do not desire to obtain anything from it, but approach it in obedience to the Divine call.
God knows what is good for us and that should be enough. We do not have to justify the time we spend in prayer. It is enough that God has asked us to "waste time" with Him. It is never a waste of time of course, but always beneficial and transformative. The more our prayer is done freely, not for a reward, the more it will bear fruit for this life and the next. Prayer that is done as a response to God's call is done out of love. Prayer is a response of love to Love.
Let us entrust ourselves to God and do whatever he asks of us, as Mary instructs the servants at the wedding feast of Cana and us - "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5). We should pray because God asks us to pray. He knows what we need and what will satisfy our hearts, which is Him alone. God will always, therefore, give us a deeper share of His divine life through prayer.
God loves us is well received, but not well believed. We know God loves us for the Bible tells us so. It has been oft repeated for thousands of years ever since God began revealing Himself to us and definitively revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. The problem is we do not believe it. Do not get me wrong we want to trust it, but we do not. Many of us live from our brokenness and weakness and think that is who we are. Many of us have felt unloved and unwanted by those who should have loved us and wanted us the most. Little by little it gets ingrained in us that we are unlovable and not even God loves us. This is the root of all of the world's problems. I know that is a bold statement, but I am convinced that it is one hundred percent true. This article will propose a way to begin to believe the truth of who we are.
Daily persevering prayer is the way to lean into the truth that God loves us. One of the many fruits of prayer is this knowledge of God's love for me personally. Although it is only one of the fruits of prayer, given the world we live in it is one of the most important.
First, prayer introduces us incrementally into a real personal knowledge of God. Prayer gives us actual experiential knowledge of God and not merely an abstract, philosophized, or theologized understanding of God, which is not to downplay their necessity. The God who is living and true and speaks to the heart. Prayer empowers us to go beyond our ideas of God, beyond the beliefs we have formed through our human experiences, which are usually wrong or too narrow. Whether we realize it or not our human experience with those in fatherly positions in our lives shapes our image of God for good or ill.
The primary goal of prayer from God's perspective is to bring us to know Him as Father. Jesus is the only one who knows who the Father is. But, He also desires to reveal the Father to us little ones (Lk 10:21-22). The revelation of the Father by the only one who knows Him is well portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32). The marvelous parable should be called the parable of the Prodigal Father. Prodigal means to squander and the Father squanders his love on a son whose first statement in the parable is a rejection of his father. When we come to know God as Father, we concomitantly come to understand His mercy and forgiveness as the parable beautifully portrays.
God is great, transcendent, majestic, and all-powerful while at the same time being tender, gentle, and full of endless mercy. In prayer, this knowledge is not grasped only by our intellect, but by our entire being. It becomes a lived experience. This knowledge of God gives us access to real understanding of ourselves. We can only honestly know ourselves in the light of God. What we learn from the experience of life, psychology, the human sciences which is helpful is also limited and partial. In the light of God, we have access to our deepest identity as we are in the loving gaze of the Father.
This knowledge has two aspects: one that is initially negative but leads directly to something extremely positive. The negative character has to do with our sin and our deep-seated brokenness. In His light, no lies, no evasion, and no masks can remain. We are compelled to see who we are, with our wounds, our weaknesses, our selfishness, our egos, our hard-heartedness, our complicity with evil and everything else.
God is tender and merciful in revealing this to us in a gradual way as we become progressively able to endure it. God shows our sin while simultaneously revealing His forgiveness and infinite mercy. We experience sorrow for our wretched condition and our absolute poverty as fallen creatures. In this, we recognize that everything good is from God and that it is received by pure grace. We can take no glory in it, nor can we attribute anything to ourselves. It places us in an excellent spiritual space - humbled.
This stage of self-knowledge is necessary for there can be no healing unless the sickness is diagnosed. The truth will set us free. There is something still more profound and more beautiful that is revealed over and above our self-knowledge. We discover that despite all of our sins and failings, we are God's children. God loves us with absolute unconditional love, and this love of the Father is our deepest identity.
At our core, we find an essential part of us that has not been corrupted by sin - the image of God although we have lost the likeness (Gn 1:26, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 705). This part of us is the love that God has for each of us personally as our Creator and Father. Although, we are each soiled by sin and in urgent need of purification and conversion, more profound still is the Father's love, which is the basis of our identity. At the very essence of who we are lies the fact that each of us is a beloved child of God. This is the answer to the question that continually echoes in the hearts of each man and each woman: Who am I?
Many have sought the answer to that question in work, in the family, in relationships, and many other things. We believe that we have to answer the question for ourselves or worse create the answer. Yet, no matter the answer we try to give it we are still empty, unsatisfied, confused since none of these have provided the answer. Worse we may believe that this is as good as it gets. This brokenness is who I am; the sum of my failures is who I am; this disordered attraction is who I am. These are the lies we believe. No, our identity is the love of the Father that we find at the center of our being.
We have to embark on the journey of prayer to find this deepest identity for ourselves. It comes to light only in a personal encounter with God. This encounter begins to strip away these false images of self and brings us to the heart of who we are. Our deepest identity is not something we need to construct but something that we need to receive as a gift. By our own baptism, we can embrace the words of the Father spoken at Jesus' baptism as spoken to each of us: "You are my beloved son (daughter)" (Lk 3:22).
Prayer, where we encounter God, permits us to discover God's unique personal love for us. None of us want to be loved in a general way. We desire to be uniquely loved. Isn't that what the experience of being in love is about - finding someone who loves you uniquely. This is what God's love brings about in us by knowing that we are uniquely loved and chosen by God in a personal way. All of this is contrary to our popular belief that God loves in a general way. God loves you as He loves no one else in the world. For it is His love that makes us unique. Analogously, a human father loves each of his children uniquely because each of his children is unrepeatable and irreplaceable.
Sometimes we can think to ourselves, "I will never love God like St. Therese or Mother Teresa or St. John Paul II." No, we cannot because we are not those persons. We can love God like no one else who has ever existed. We can love Him with our unique personality that was created by His love. We can serve Him, and the Church like no one else in history has ever served. We are not one among many. The way we love and serve God and the Church is our gift to both, and no one else will bring it to fruition but us.
There is much mystery in this reality. It is not something we can claim as our glory or assimilate to ourselves as our project. It must be lived out in humility and poverty. It has to be lived out as a response to the love of God in faith and hope. Yet, it is real and sure enough to give inner freedom and security to live this life of faith with confidence.
The discovery of the personal love of God as Father is the essential fruit of fidelity to prayer, and the most precious gift. God's fatherhood is the most profound reality there is and once we experience it life takes on an unfathomable richness and depth. God's fatherhood is the source of happiness for each person. In it, we seek to live, and move, and have our being. We expect everything from His goodness and generosity, confidently living every moment of our lives as a gift from our merciful Father. Learning our true identity as a beloved child of the Father is one of the many fruits of persevering prayer, but arguably in our world the most important. Let's get praying.
* The inspiration for this article derives from Fr. Jacques Philippe's book "Thirsting for Prayer." Scepter Publishers, 2014.
Paul at the Aeropagus in Athens, Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734
Historical Fact III - The Conversion of the Gentiles
The third historical fact that demands an explanation is the sudden rise of Christianity in the mid-first century. Why did it come into existence? What caused this movement to begin? Some of the most skeptical scholars recognize that Christianity arose because the earliest disciples sincerely believed that God raised Jesus from the dead.
The third historical fact, then, is the sudden and surprising birth of Christianity and its subsequent spread to the ends of the earth. To explain this third fact, we need to see the Resurrection through the New Testament writings, as the fulfillment of Jewish scripture.
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead" (Luke 24:45).
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead (John 20:8-9).
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
The writers of the New Testament in giving proof for Jesus' resurrection continually point to it as the fulfillment of scripture. What scripture is referred to here? There is not an explicit prophecy of the resurrection of the Messiah on the third day. To answer this question, we must go back to the teaching of Jesus himself.
In the Gospels, there is one passage from Jewish scripture that Jesus cites as a direct prophecy of his resurrection on the third day: the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:38-41; Luke 11:29-32).
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (Mattew 12:38–41).
We all know this passage well. I don't know about you but when I hear it read I immediately think of children's bibles and movies that show Jonah camping out in the belly of the whale for three days. The Book of Jonah tells a different story. Three points stand out in the story. First, Jonah cried from "the belly of Sheol" and "the Pit," both of these, are standard Old Testament terms for the realm of the dead. Therefore, Jonah died in the belly of the whale. Second, Jonah says that his "soul" fainted within him, which is another way of saying that he died. Therefore, when the fish vomits Jonah onto the land, it is vomiting up a corpse. Third, God's first words to Jonah are "arise" (Hebrew qum). Qum is the same Semitic term Jesus uses when he raises Jarius' daughter from the dead (Talitha cumi). Therefore, the story of Jonah is the story of his death and resurrection.
The climax of the story of Jonah is not his resurrection, but the subsequent and even more miraculous repentance of the Gentile city of Ninevah. "And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them" (Jonah 3:5). To understand how miraculous this was we need to put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of a first-century Jewish reader, who would have known that Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, one of Israel's fiercest pagan enemies (see 2 Kings 15-17; Tobit 13). Recognizing this fact, it becomes apparent that the miracle of Jonah is the repentance or even the conversion of the Gentiles.
The Pharisees and scribes demand a "sign" from Jesus that is a miracle to prove that he is who he is claiming to be. In response, Jesus declares that the only "sign" he will give to this generation is the sign of Jonah. Jesus is referring to both the miraculous rescue of Jonah from death and the repentance of the Gentiles. The same is true of the sign of the Son of Man. The "sign of Jonah" is both the Resurrection of the Son of Man on the third day and the repentance of the Gentiles that will follow his resurrection.
What is Jesus saying about his resurrection? Jesus is telling us that the reason to believe in him is twofold: his resurrection from the dead and the inexplicable conversion of the pagan nations - the Gentiles. The most powerful reason for believing in the Resurrection is that many Gentile nations, cities, even empires would convert, cast away their idols, and turn to the God of Israel. I think we take this miracle for granted nowadays. We see this reason given by numerous Church Fathers. They didn't point to the empty tomb or the resurrection appearances, but instead to the Gentile nations around them. They looked to the pagan world around them that was crumbling to the ground as the Gentiles turned from the worship of idols, gods, and goddesses, and inexplicably repented, turned, and began to worship the God of the Jews.
They are still converting today. The Church is still spreading throughout the world, two thousand years later. I suppose you could say this is all a coincidence. I guess you could claim the many passages of the Old Testament prophesying that one day the pagan nations would worship the God of Israel just happened to take place after the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus (see Isaiah 2:13; 25:6-8; 66:18-21; Jeremiah 3:15-18; Micah 4:1-2; Zechariah 8:20-23). I presume you could think that Jesus' crucifixion, that the tomb inexplicably was found empty, and hundreds of Jesus' disciples began to claim to have seen him alive again, bodily, is all coincidental. I prefer the simpler explanation, Jesus was right. The Son of Man would die, the tomb would be empty, because he rose on the third day. The tomb is still empty. The Gentiles continue to convert. Jesus' sign can be seen by anyone with eyes to see.
See Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, 2016.
I am a Catholic priest writing about Catholic things.