Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
It has frequently been noted that doctors and nurses sometimes make difficult patients because their medical knowledge and experience has them second guessing decisions and treatment options offered by those caring for them. However, thinking that we are experts in what is best for us is not limited to doctors and nurses, but can also occur in other areas of life including our spiritual lives. We encounter a good example of this in today’s gospel where the sons of Zebedee approach Jesus and rather brazenly insist that he do whatever they ask of him–the presumption being that they know what is best for them.
This presumption is something we share with the apostles–at least in the early stages of our spiritual journey and as such marks the first of three stages of our growth in intercessory prayer. This first stage is on in which God is sought less for himself and more for what he can do for us. Accordingly, when we pray it is chiefly to request divine help and favor and, like the sons of Zebedee, our prayer at this stage can all too easily presume that we know what is best for us or for those we pray for.
However, when some of our most sincere and persistent intercessions fail to obtain the desired outcome we begin to move towards the second stage of growth in prayer. Depending on our personality, upbringing and history, a seemingly deaf God or one apparently unwilling to grant our petitions can evoke feelings of confusion, frustration, hurt, resentment and even anger. This is especially true when our prayer has been altruistic in seeking the good of a family member or friend–be that something like healing from sickness or success in finding employment.
If we nevertheless persevere in praying despite these mixed and unsatisfactory results we may also find ourselves being plagued by doubts and uncertainties that threaten to undermine our faith in God’s goodness or even–in more extreme cases–faith in God’s existence. How many there are who have abandoned faith in a God who seems either absent or indifferent to human suffering? But for those who don’t give up at this stage and who, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to pray and blindly trust in God’s goodness and providence, there opens up a third stage of our growth towards mature and true prayer.
Sometimes this transition occurs in conjunction with a process of looking back over our lives and realizing how some of our apparently unanswered prayers were clearly blessings in disguise. And so instead of being troubled we are filled with gratitude precisely because they were not answered in the manner we had hoped for at the time. Increasingly we begin to acknowledge that our time-bound perspective can make us poor judges of what is best for us and in the service of our ultimate good. In contrast, God with his eternal perspective sees every moment of our life within the context of our eternal destiny and what constitutes our ultimate good. And thus the confusion, uncertainties, doubts and frustrations of the second stage gradually yield to an emerging and deepening trust and surrender–the perfection of which we witness in Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane: My father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without drinking it, your will be done.
And as this third stage of prayer takes hold in our lives we find ourselves more often that not simply lifting people up in prayer without praying for anything specific. This is especially likely in some of those more complex situations in our own or other people’s lives when we simply don’t know what to pray for. Interestingly, though, the more we enter into this trusting and surrendered state (rather than insisting on our own solutions) we gradually begin to share in something of the divine perspective and ever so gradually begin to experience reality from God’s perspective and, as it were, view it through his eyes. This is one reason why the prayers of holy people are so effective. It’s not because they have more influence over God, but rather because they are more fully in tune with the mind of God and pray accordingly.
In the light, then, of today’s gospel we might spend a little time today assessing where we are in relation to our prayers petitioning the Lord. To the degree that we are still like the sons of Zebedee in today’s gospel let us implore the Lord to open our hearts to ever deeper trust in his infinite wisdom and his providential and unfailing love. For it is only with such trust that we can move ever closer towards that yielded and trustingly surrendered spirit with which our Savior drank from the bitter cup of suffering and death so that in drinking from the same cup we may come to share the glory that is his as our Risen and Glorified Lord.