Do you pray like a pagan? Monsignor Thomas Richter posed this during a conversation, “Getting God Right,” on Relevant Radio’s “The Inner Life” Oct. 26, with host Josh Raymond.
The question wasn’t meant to disparage anyone, but to inspire us to think differently about the ways in which we interact with God.
The pagans of Biblical times, Richter said, understood God as a supreme, all-powerful being. But they also believed that they acted first, then God responded. In the Christian understanding, the reverse is true: God acts first, then we respond.
“There’s no goodness in God that he isn’t already showing me; no great gift that he could be giving; nothing he could be doing that he isn’t already doing for me,” Richter said.
Understanding this, we can realize that our interaction with God should be about letting him act and enter into our lives.
Imagine God as the sun, Richter said, “always shining, always giving warmth.” We don’t make the sun to shine, he noted. “We open up the curtains and see the sun that is shining.”
This is what the sacramental life is all about, he said, and in understanding God as constant giver, we can begin to meet him more easily.
“People spend decades…trying to get God to be good, to act,” he said, like the pagans. Thus, when God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we would like, we assume God doesn’t love us, or the object of our prayer, as much as we do.
The true Christian prayer, Richter said, should be a request that God not let us get in the way or try to change his will, which will always be better, and more loving, than our own.
Raymond admitted that he’s often inclined to insist on his own will first.
“That’s because your heart is still too pagan,” Richter responded. “It’s pagan (to believe) that somehow my will is better than God’s will,” he said. “We pray as pagans…when we try to get God to actualize greater love, greater goodness” than he’s already manifesting.
In this way, we are praying to a God with potential rather than the true God. “This isn’t about getting God to act to my will, but God getting us to receive the good that he is already willing.”
God is a giver, always giving of himself, whether to Hitler or Mother Teresa, Richter noted. “The difference isn’t God’s posture to them, but their receptivity (to God),” he said. “If we let God do what he does, we become saints. If we don’t, we become demons.”
When a caller asked what the point of intercessory prayer is then, Richter said St. Augustine explained intercessory prayer as our “expanding to receive what God is already doing,” not to change God’s will. It’s about “holding my need up before God so that whatever he’s trying to do for us can be done,” and creating a space for God to act.
In North Dakota, farmers often pray for rain, he said. “If that’s done from a Christian heart, we say, ‘Here is our need for rain. We hold it before you, and whatever you want to do for us, may it be done.’ We’re entering into his providence.”
Imagine the Blessed Mother, on Good Friday, saying, “Stop this. Do MY will,” Richter suggested. If that had happened, we could not be saved. Instead, “Mary is standing at the cross in her great suffering saying, ‘This doesn’t make sense, but please don’t let my heart get in the way of what you’re wanting to do in this moment.’”
This kind of prayer, he said, comes from a deep conviction that God always has our best interest at heart.
Raymond then asked about the idea of “God is love,” and how it can be misconstrued and used wrongly to justify sin.
“God is love, and that’s not just fluff. That is a serious dogmatic truth,” Richter said, noting that God, who could “blow out the sun with one breath,” is all powerful, and knows everything, and is, at every moment, using his intelligence and all his power for our good.
“If one understands and truly believes this, it should make us more devoted to (God) getting his way,” he said. “I don’t always care for myself, but (God) does. The one who takes this seriously is the first one to abandon himself to God. Otherwise, I don’t believe God is love.”
When we let God love us, we are able to enter into his joy, Richter said. “The more I accept that God is love…the more I want him to get his way.”
How and where do we receive this love? “At the intersection of human need,” Richter explained. “Where is God giving himself to me? In my need.” We show our lack of faith when we hate our need, poverty and dependence on God.
It takes trust—believing that God is the creator and we, the creatures—and then allowing “my beautiful, providing Father, who’s always giving himself to me,” to come to me in my need.
“What is the ‘I can’t’ in your life?” Richter asked. We need to begin opening ourselves to receiving God, as Jesus directed us in Matthew 11:25: “Come to me, all you who are labor and burdened, and I will give, I will give, I will give…you rest.”
“The cross, dear listeners, is anything you’d like to change, control and make happen, but can’t,” Richter concluded. “That is where God reveals himself. And you don’t have to get him to be good. He has to get you to trust him. To surrender. To invite him. To give him permission to do whatever he wants.”