If the Father Knows What We Need Before Asking, Why Bother to Pray?
“Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt 6:8).
Why should we even bother with petitionary prayer? During the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), immediately before giving us the “Our Father,” Jesus stated, “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt 6:8). This was soon followed by another comforting reassurance:
“Do not be anxious, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matt 6:31-32).
Yet if God already knows what we need, why bother to ask Him in the first place? Besides, if St. Paul is right, then we don’t even know how to pray properly (Rom. 8:26)—so why should we pray in the first place? Does the act of prayer give us psychological consolation, but nothing more?
Or … does prayer give us something deeper? Through prayer, can we actually touch the hem of God’s robe, even if we can’t see Him face to face? (Mark 5:25-29 and Exodus 33:20)
Here’s another conundrum: since Jesus told us that our Father already knows what we need, why did he also tell us to “pray continually and never lose heart”? (Luke 18:1) Why did St. Paul repeat the Messiah’s message by stating, “pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17)? Both Jesus and St. Paul seem to be contracting themselves. How utterly confusing!
Yet the answer is actually quite simple, and comforting. We pray, according to St. Gregory the Great, “that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give.”
“We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to Him our needs or desires, but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters.”
We also need to pray in order to help clarify within ourselves, as an act of discernment, what God’s will is for us. We pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including supernatural knowledge, divine understanding, and the ability to be open to the Spirit’s counsel.
We pray not to coerce God to give us what we want, but for the grace to accept what God knows we need.
Often people feel their prayers aren’t being answered because they don’t obtain what they’ve been requesting. Perhaps Grandma Dottie is sick, so we pray for her to be healed and become well again. It doesn’t happen, though. Grandma is too advanced in years, too frail, and she eventually passes away from her illness.
Did God ignore our prayers, or did He stubbornly refuse to answer them, even though He’s perfectly capable of miraculous healing?
No, God doesn’t ignore prayers. He answers every one of them.
But here’s the kicker—God answers every prayer in the way He knows is best, not necessarily in the way we think is best.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the LORD.” (Isaiah 55:8)
We may not know nor understand why it was God’s will to heal Grandma through physical death rather than continuing her earthly life, but those imbued with the virtues of faith, hope and charity realize that, even if we don’t understand the reason for certain situations, “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to God’s purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
In time, God’s divine good will be blessedly revealed to us by our merciful and loving Father—if we’re open to the revelations the Holy Spirit is always desiring to give us.
Now, it sometimes happens that what is sought in prayer is not a true, but an apparent good … Therefore, such a prayer is not granted by God.”
St. Thomas compares this situation with a doctor who refuses to give his patient something that may harm him. Let’s say, for example, that a patient decides she wants a prescription for Oxycontin to help reduce pain from a serious injury. If the patient is a recovering drug addict prone to relapses, the physician will refuse to write the prescription—for her own good and well-being. Although the drug may initially reduce pain, and therefore appear to be a good thing, the doctor knows that it wouldn’t be a true good. Relapse into drug addiction could very well destroy her life.
“Our Father knows what we need before we ask Him, but he awaits our petition because the dignity of His children lies in their freedom. We must pray, then, with His Spirit of freedom, to be able truly to know what He wants.” (CCC 2736)
The key to right prayer can be found in the virtue of humility, the grace of patience, and the habitual practice of fortitude. When we ask God for something, in true humility, we should do so in Jesus’ name—in other words, in full acceptance of the outcome of our prayers, no matter what God may desire for us. God’s answer to our prayers may or may not take the form we were hoping, but it will always be for our greatest benefit.
“Blessed are You, O God, with every pure blessing; let all your chosen ones bless You. Blessed are You because You have made me glad. It has not turned out as I expected, but You have dealt with us according to Your great mercy.” (Tobit 8:15-16)
It's when we open ourselves to God’s complete will—and humbly accept whatever His will may be—that true miracles occur in our lives. We should pray not to change or alter God’s ordained blessings for us, but to peacefully embrace that which God wishes to give us.
God’s will seeks to perfect us—if we but accept and follow His urgings in our lives.