In His Last Supper Discourse, Our Lord spoke to His Apostles the following: “Amen, amen, I say to you: If you ask the Father any thing in My name, He will give it you. Hitherto you have not asked any thing in My name: Ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full” (16:23-24). But it seems that when we ask in the Name of Christ, oftentimes our prayers are not answered. Why is this? Is it because Christ was wrong, or because He was purposefully misleading us? Such statements, of course, are offensive to pious ears.
As St. James tells us in his Epistle, “You ask, and receive not; because you ask amiss” (4:3). But, what does it mean to ask amiss in prayer?
First, it might mean asking for something which, while it might seem good to us, God knows that if it were granted, it would lead to our harm or at least not to our best advantage (see Luk 11:11-13). Like a good parent who does not give his child something which will be harmful, God seemingly refuses such prayers in order to protect us. St. Augustine (Tract. lxxiii.) rightly observes that
God occasionally refuses what we ask for, because this is more expedient for our salvation and His glory: God therefore hears us, not according to our wishes, but as it is best for our salvation. And thus He hearkened not to St. Paul when he prayed to be delivered from the thorn in the flesh, because it was more profitable to him, to humble him, and that he might continually struggle with and overcome it.
In this passage, St. Augustine gives us the key that when we pray our main concern should be the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls. Our Lord Himself said, “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mat 6:33). Our Lord directs us to seek chiefly and above all the kingdom of God, namely the means which lead us to the kingdom of God, such as God’s grace, virtue, and good and righteous works. These we should esteem above all other things, count them as of the highest value, and count material and physical goods as having less worth, and as only to be sought after in second place to those things which are for the greater glory of God and our salvation.
This is why in the prayer taught to us by Our Lord, we are instructed to pray first for God’s glory – “Hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come” – and then later on for our bodily needs – “give us this day our daily bread.”
There are additional reasons why God might refuse our prayers which will be explored in a future article.
[Note: this article draws from Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on John 16]