Why does God want us to ask for things? Does God change His mind when we keep asking, similar to the way that children change their parents’ minds? Today’s second reading (1 Tim 2:1-8) calls for prayer: “I desire supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1 Tim 2:1).
The Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed: “He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone” (Mt 14:23); “It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12); “In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying (Mark 1:35).
Jesus prayed for people: “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail” (Lk 22:32); “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message …” (Jn 17:20).
Is prayer necessary? Doesn’t God know what we need? Surely, God can simply give us what we or others need without our asking?
St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that God is already generous to us: “God bestows many things on us out of His liberality, even without our asking for them: but He wishes to bestow certain things on us at our asking for the sake of our good …” (2a2ae. 83, 2, ad 3).
What benefit do we get from asking for things? Thomas answers: “… we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God and we may recognize in Him the Author of our goods” (2a2ae. 83, 2, ad 3).
Developing the habit of bringing our needs to God and recognizing that God is the source of good things is to our benefit.
Thomas explains that God, in His providence, may act directly in our lives but usually God works through “secondary causes,” which can be people or things whose intervention is moved by God: “Divine providence disposes not only that effects shall take place but also from what causes and in what order the effects shall proceed. Now among other causes human acts are the causes of certain effects” (2a2ae. 83, 2).
Our actions bring about certain effects, according to His Providence: “Men do certain actions, not that they may change the divine disposition but that by these actions they may achieve certain effects according to the order of the Divine disposition …” (2a2ae. 83, 2).
Prayer is a good example of secondary causes bringing about effects: “And so it is regard to prayer. For we pray, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may implement what God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayer” (2a2ae. 83, 2). In God’s Providence, our prayer cooperates with God’s desires.
Through prayer, we bring our concerns to God: “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” (2a2ae. 83, 2, ad 1).
In his Commentary on the First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, Thomas emphasizes the importance of prayer in overcoming our temptations and in persevering in good: “Paul shows that among all the things necessary for a Christian life the most important is prayer, which is powerful against the dangers of temptation and helpful toward making progress in the good: ‘The continual prayer of a just man avails much’ (Jas 5:16)” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, 56).
Thomas points out that the first three types of prayer described in First Timothy, “supplications, prayer, intercessions,” (1 Tim 2:1) are ways of asking God’s help. Thomas notes that when people ask for a favor, they offer a reason why it should be granted. The best way of asking God for something is to ask His mercy: “in the case of prayer, this is not our merits but God’s mercy.”
We don’t ask that our prayers should be answered because we are good but because God is good. Thomas recalls words from the Book of Daniel: “It is not for our justifications that we present our prayers before Your face, but for the multitude of Your tender mercies” (Dan 9:18). Thomas offers an example, the frequently used prayer: ‘By Your Passion and Cross, deliver us, O Lord” (Commentary, 57).
Thomas reminds us that prayer is sacred: “This sacred thing is a cause of salvation… This is why prayer is required because it is the ascent of the mind to God … We do not intend to bend God’s will, which is always prepared to do good, rather, it is in order that our heart may be elevated to God in prayer” (Commentary, 57).
Thomas insists that God’s will “is always prepared to do good.” Prayer is our “ascent,” our lifting of our minds to God that “elevates” our hearts to God as well.
Thomas notes that the fourth type of prayer mentioned by First Timothy is “thanksgiving,” recalling another passage of Scripture: “In all things, give thanks” (2 Thess 5:18).
First Timothy teaches that we should pray for “all people” (1 Tim 2:1). According to Thomas, “By praying we give voice to our desires. But charity requires that we desire good for all to whom our charity extends’ (Commentary, 58).
First Timothy affirms that praying for all is “a good and acceptable thing” (1 Tim 2:3). Thomas comments that prayer for others is good “because it is an act of charity” and as offered to God, “it could be offered only under charity” (Commentary, 61, 62).
First Timothy instructs that “God wills that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Thomas says that God “offers to all the precepts, counsels and remedies required for salvation” (Commentary, 62).
Thomas counsels that God wants us to desire the salvation of all: “God is said to make something because He makes others do it: ‘the Spirit asks for the saints’ (Rom 8:27), that is, He causes them to ask. In this way God wills this because He makes His saints will that all people be saved” (Commentary, 62).
God wills that all people “come to the knowledge of truth.” For Thomas, “Salvation depends on knowing the truth, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’ (Jn 8:32)” (Commentary, 62).
First Timothy declares there is “one mediator of God and people, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 2:5). Thomas remarks, “… not of some people but of all; and this would not be true, unless He willed all to be saved” (Commentary, 64).
According to Thomas, a “mediator” is between two extremes, as Christ is between God and people, “inasmuch as He is God and inasmuch as He is a man; because a mediator should have something common to both extremes, and these are man and God” (Commentary, 64).
Since a mediator is between the two, a mediator is different from each but the Son is different from the Father only in His humanity. God is just and immortal. We are unjust and mortal. The devil seeks to keep the extremes apart, “but Christ is a medium who joins, because He is just and mortal, and by His death joins us to the God of justice: ‘He is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 Jn 2:2)” (Commentary, 64).
First Timothy asserts that Christ “gave Himself as a redemption for all” (1 Tim 2:6).
Thomas adds that for all Christ’s action is “sufficient,” in that it has the power to save all but it is not “efficacious” because not all accept it: “The price of His blood is sufficient for the salvation of all but because of obstacles it does not take effect…” (Commentary, 64).
Paul was appointed “a preacher and an apostle… a doctor of the gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim 2:7). Thomas comments “The work of this office is to preach the truth; for this is the duty of preachers, namely to preach the truth” (Commentary, 69). Thomas recalls the words of Scripture: “My mouth shall meditate the truth” (Prov 8:7) and “speak the truth” (Eph 4:25).
Thomas grants that every teaching has partial truth, “There is no doctrine that does not have some truth; and the reason why some doctrines are condemned is that they mix falsity with truth” (Commentary, 69). The preacher preaches the full truth.
First Timothy charges: “I will that people pray in every place, lifting up pure hands, without anger and contention” (1 Tim 2:8). Thomas notes: “A person can pray spiritually and mentally everywhere.”
Still, Christ rebuked the Pharisees for praying on street corners. Thomas explains: “Mental prayer can be performed anywhere but the external signs of prayer should not be performed everywhere because a person should not appear singular in his outward actions because of the danger of doing them out of vain glory” (Commentary, 71).
To the objection that people might not need churches if we can pray anywhere, Thomas replies: “It is not because the place is necessary for prayer but for the convenience of the one who prays, that is, to have solitude and quiet” (Commentary, 71).
First Timothy spoke of “lifting up pure hands.” Thomas comments that external signs are meant to stir up the affections: “Genuflections and the like are not of themselves pleasing to God, but only because of them, as by signs of humility, a person is internally humble; just as lifting up the hands indicates that the heart has been lifted up” (Commentary, 72).
First Timothy affirms that prayer should be “without anger and contention” (1 Tim 2:8). Thomas comments: “The mind should be without anger, which disquiets the soul to inflict harm upon one’s neighbor, whereas the mind of the one praying should be free of this…we should not contend against our neighbor or break the peace with him through contention; for peace is necessary for the man who prays” (Commentary, 73).
Thomas reminds us of the words of Jesus on union with others: “If two of you consent upon earth concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by My Father” (Mt 18:19).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References are to Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the First Letter to Timothy, Vol. 40, The Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, translated by F.R. Larcher, O.P., edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón, (Lander Wyoming: Aquinas Institute, 2012), pp. 261-270.
References to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, which, in this case, is the second part of the second part (2a2ae or II,II). Then the question is given, which here is question 83 and then the article. If the reference is from Thomas response to an objection, the number of the objection is added, with the Latin word, ad, meaning “to.” An example would be 2a2ae. 83, 2, ad 3).