Previously, it was discussed that God refuses our prayers if we ask amiss, as St. James explains in his Epistle (4:3). God will not grant us something which He knows will be harmful or at least not to our best advantage. It was also stated that our prayers for God’s glory and one’s salvation should hold the first place.
But we also pray amiss when we do not ask or pray as we should. Scripture shows us that there are several qualities which prayer should have so that it will be heard favorably by God.
First, we should pray with humility and reverence. In the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luk 18:9–14), Our Lord tells us that the prayer of the Publican was heard because he prayed with humility and reverence. He prayed standing afar off and did not so much as lift his eyes to heaven. The prayer of the Pharisee, on the other hand, was not heard because he was proud and presuming.
True prayer also requires contrition for sin. God, speaking to sinners through the prophet Isaias said:
And when you stretch forth your hands, I will turn away my eyes from you: and when you multiply prayer, I will not hear…Wash yourselves, be clean, take away the evil of your devices from my eyes, cease to do perversely, learn to do well: seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge for the fatherless, defend the widow. And then come…If you be willing, and will hearken to me, you shall eat the good things of the land (1:15-19).
From this, we should take the lesson that sinners who willfully persist in sin, when they pray, are not readily heard by God.
It is not required, however, that we be sinless in order for God to hear our prayer. If this were the case, then practically no one would be able to pray properly in any sense to God. What is required is that we realize that we are sinners and, relying on God’s grace, repent and have sorrow for our sins.
True prayer also requires great faith and confidence that we shall obtain what we ask for through Christ. St. James in his Epistle wrote: “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, which is moved and carried about by the wind. Therefore let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (1:6-7). According to St. James, those who waver in faith should not expect to receive an answer to their prayers.
It is recorded multiple times in the Gospel that Our Lord granted prayers in proportion to the faith of the requestors – “Then [Christ] touched their eyes, saying, According to your faith, be it done unto you. And their eyes were opened” (Mat 9:29). But, conversely, where faith is lacking, God withheld His blessings – “And he wrought not many miracles there, because of their unbelief” (Mat 13:58). It is clear, then, from Scripture that prayer needs to be grounded in a firm faith and confidence in God.
Lastly, prayer requires perseverance. This is the lesson Our Lord gives us in the parable of the Importunate Neighbor:
And he said to them: Which of you shall have a friend and shall go to him at midnight and shall say to him: Friend, lend me three loaves, because a friend of mine is come off his journey to me and I have not what to set before him. And he from within should answer and say: Trouble me not; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot rise and give thee. Yet if he shall continue knocking, I say to you, although he will not rise and give him because he is his friend; yet, because of his importunity, he will rise and give him as many as he needeth (Luk 11:5-18).
In the same way, if we are persistent in our requests to God, continually knocking at His door, He will be more inclined to grant our petition.
If we wish for our prayer to be heard, our main concern should be to pray for the greater glory of God and for the salvation of souls, especially our own. We should pray with humility and reverence, with great faith and confidence, with repentance and with perseverance.
[Note: this article draws and quotes from Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on John 16]