Wrestling with God through prayer

By Pedro Mendez


Prayer is one of the most misunderstood spiritual practices. I often hear people saying, “God doesn’t answer my prayers;” “I’ve prayed several devotionals and nothing happens;” and “I need to pray harder.” Prayer is misunderstood, among other reasons, due to the belief that the act of praying itself will work some magical trick so that God can give us what we request. We come up with phrases like, “Prayer is powerful.” Prayer isn’t powerful; God is!

Prayer is essential in life, especially when facing challenging circumstances and even when struggling with truths of faith. Two of the causes of the Eucharistic crisis, which I describe as being at the lowest point of our Church life, are a prayer practice developed with an “idea of God” instead of with God himself; and not using prayer as a way of wrestling with God. In this article, we examine prayer itself and prayer as a way to wrestle with God.

Prayer is a conversation with God in which God talks to us and we listen, and we talk to God and he listens. God talks to us through Sacred Scripture, creation and life events, to name a few ways. We talk to God by honest disclosure of ourselves to him. This conversation with God is not based on spiritual expectations/ideals, but on spiritual reality.

In a prayer based on spiritual expectations/ideals, we tend to go through the motions by stressing the act of praying; denying human experience; and speaking to the image of God we have created out of our own needs, anxieties and fantasies. We domesticate Jesus, which prevents us from experiencing his true power. We don’t wrestle with God but remain spiritually dormant. A person struggling with the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist under this model might pray as follows: “Jesus, I believe you are present in the Blessed Sacrament (while speaking to the Jesus of his imagination); you’re my ticket to eternal life (while being triggered by a struggle with the teachings on the Eucharist and ignoring it); and I’m grateful to believe in you (while feeling guilty about having that struggle). Since I’m afraid to offend you, to go to Hell or to spend too much time in Purgatory, I will pray an Our Father and a Hail Mary hoping you might also give me what I sincerely want. Amen.”

In a realistic encounter, we talk with God, listen to him and do not deny human experience. We believe in God’s mercy and power, and are in touch with our beliefs and unbeliefs. Prayer is a bridge to encounter God – not the source of power itself. We disclose ourselves to God and wait for God to disclose himself to us. God’s revelation makes us aware of our fallen humanity, while contemplating him in awe. We experience Jesus’ love as a shocking power that destroys sin and the evil one in our lives, and fulfills our desires. In this encounter, the person doesn't question God but, instead, asks him questions.

A person struggling with the teachings on the Eucharist under this model might pray as follows: “Jesus, thank you for the gift of yourself to us (while looking at the Blessed Sacrament or being aware of Jesus’ presence, being triggered by his struggle, but without ignoring it). I want to believe, but it is too hard. How can it be possible that your Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity are before my eyes? Is it really you? Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! Holy Spirit, I let you lead my intellect and conscience to all truth.” Resistance to God is a sign of God inviting us to wrestle with him! We know God is listening, and he would respond yes, no, or wait to our petition.

Do we, personally and communally, speak to an image of God, or do we talk with God himself? Have we used prayer to wrestle with him? We are at the lowest point of our Church life for having a high percentage of us not believing in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Are we open to wrestling with God on this through a real encounter with him in prayer?

Pedro Mendez is a husband, a father of four boys, a parishioner at Good Shepherd Parish in Evansville and a Board Certified Chaplain. He can be reached by email at [email protected].