Abraham had better results from his one prayer than most of us do in a lifetime. Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God, having heard the outcry against these two towns whose sins were great and grave, was ready to destroy them both.
Appealing to God's better instincts, Abraham plea-bargains: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place?” Then the clincher: “Far be it from you to do such a thing.”
It worked! Not only once, but five times. In answer to Abraham's petition, God was willing to preserve the towns for a mere ten innocent people.
But as we know from the rest of this sad tale, there weren't even ten to be found. And although Lot and his family were spared, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
I heard this story as a young child, first wondrously recounted by my aunt, a Sister of Saint Joseph, and then later in Bible history class. I remember thinking: “Go, Abraham, go. Ask God for five.” Ever since, I've had strong tendencies to be a bargainer, maybe even a canon lawyer, and certainly a petitioner.
I ask God for everything I want but am nowhere near as successful as Abraham. I ask for health, miracles, X-ray vision to find lost articles, and, intermittently, to be a better person.
Why not? Jesus said we should pray for our daily bread. That covers a lot. How many times, late at night, have I pounded on the door of heaven, remembering his words from Luke's Gospel: “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you.”
I have asked and sought and knocked so much, you'd think I would know better by now.
Either the problem is with me or it is with God: take your choice. For myself, as the years go on, I think the problem is mine—or at least what I ask for and why I ask.
Behind most of my prayers is a gnawing fear of losing the loves of this life, so ephemeral and bittersweet. Although most of the things I ask for are by and large good, I have come to think that my desire to secure them suffers from a paradoxical dilemma.
In all my pleas, especially for what I love most, I am really asking that they never die, that they never be lost irreparably. But clearly, if nothing we love could ever die to this world, we would all end up decrepit bags of bones on a depleted earth.
In fact, we would have to be made of non-biodegradable plastic; but then how could we love, much less grow? That cannot be the answer.
Perhaps this is. Jesus teaches us to pray to our God as a father in heaven. And his promise is that, beyond this earth, none of its goods we cherish will ever be stolen away.
What parent among you will give your child a snake
if he asks for a fish, or hand her a scorpion if she asks for an egg?