Have you ever had the following kind of experience? Let’s say you read from Ezekiel 36 and hear the Lord say: “you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses… A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you…” Then you pause and reflect for a moment and exclaim: “But I’m not clean from uncleanness, I don’t have a new heart, I don’t have a new spirit! I’m exactly as I always was, despite my urgent and sincere prayers!” Or what if you read from John 14 and hear Jesus say: “he who believes in me will do the works that I do, and greater works than these he will do… Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it…” After a bit more reflection you shout: “But I don’t do the works He did, let alone greater ones! And I don’t receive whatever I ask in his name!” Or suppose you just read here and there throughout the Scriptures and finally begin to scream: “But I don’t have peace with God, I’m not filled with all the fullness of God, I’m not strong, I have not overcome the evil one, I’m not the salt of the earth, I’m not the light of the world, the truth has not set me free, I don’t ‘rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy,’ I don’t have wisdom—I’m constantly failing, messing things up, and I’m full of doubt and confusion despite my best efforts and prayers!”
Well, don’t expect me to solve your problems—I’ve got enough of my own! But there are a few things to look at here. Most of the promises in Scripture are conditional in some way. You’ll notice that most are also in the future tense, so perhaps their time simply has not yet come. Some things require faith, some require love as conditions for the manifestation of what God has promised. We are perhaps coming up short in these areas, and though God would like to give us what He promised, He sees we haven’t yet the capacity to receive or even to recognize his gifts. It could be that we haven’t matured to the level at which we could bear fruit from what we ask for, or that we are simply asking for the wrong things, or the right things at the wrong time, or the right things for the wrong reasons. God has to keep track of all these variables, and we ought to give Him credit for being rather good at it, so we’re going to have to do one or more of the following: 1) stop bellyaching; 2) repent; 3) grow up; 4) be patient; 5) redouble our efforts; 6) trust; 7) trust some more; 8) be content with slow progress; 9) get help; 10) persevere anyway.
I just read something from St Bernard of Clairvaux that will perhaps be of some assistance in the matter: “Every time I speak about prayer, it seems to me that I hear in your heart certain human reflections that I have often heard, even in my own heart. Since we never stop praying, how come we so rarely seem to experience the fruit of prayer? We have the impression that we come out of prayer like we entered into it; no one answers us with even one word, gives us anything at all; we have the impression that we have labored in vain. But what does the Lord say in the gospel? ‘Stop judging by appearances and make a just judgment’ (Jn 7 :24). What is a just judgment other than a judgment of faith? For ‘the just man shall live by faith’ (Gal 3:11). So follow the judgment of faith rather than your experience, for faith does not deceive, whereas experience can lead into error.
“And what is the truth of faith other than that the Son of God himself promised: ‘If you are ready to believe that you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer, it shall be done for you’ (Mk 11:24). Thus, may no one among you, Brothers, consider prayer to be a small thing. For I assure you, the one to whom it is addressed does not consider it a small thing; even before it has left our mouth, he has had it written down in his book. Without the slightest doubt, we can be sure that God will either give us what we are asking him or he will give us something that he knows to be better. For ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Rom 8:26), but God has compassion on our ignorance and he receives our prayer with kindness… So ‘take delight in the Lord, and he will grant you your heart’s requests’”(Ps 37:4). [Sermons for Lent, no. 5, 5]
Perhaps we should just accept that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” and then put our trust in the providence of God, who knows how to grant what He ought, and who knows what is best for our spiritual growth and salvation. So let us take heart. At a recent audience in Rome, the Pope assured us that Jesus “adapts Himself to our weakness,” knowing that we aren’t what we should be, that we don’t know how to pray as we ought, and that we haven’t yet born much fruit from his grace. Benedict XVI said: "From the ingenuous enthusiasm of the initial adherence, passing through the painful experience of denial and the tears of conversion, Peter came to entrust himself to Jesus, who adapted Himself to his poor capacity to love. And He also shows us the way, despite all our weakness. We know that Jesus adapts Himself to our weakness. We follow Him, with our poor capacity to love, and we know that Jesus is good and he accepts us."
Courage, then. Look not at your defeats but at Christ’s victory, not at your inner chaos, but at Him who makes all things new. If you pray but one prayer earnestly and from the heart—“Thy will be done!”—you can be sure it will be answered.