From Living Prayer
And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” (Matthew 15:22)
In the episode of the Canaanite woman, we see Christ, at least at first, refusing to answer a prayer; it is the case of a prayer tested in an extremely hard way. The woman asks for something which is absolutely right, she comes with complete faith and does not even say “if you can,” she just comes, sure that Christ can and that he will be willing, and that her child will be cured. To all this faith the answer is, “No.” It is not that the prayer is not worthy, or the faith not sufficient, simply that she is the wrong sort of person. Christ has come for the Jews, she is a pagan; he has not come for her. But she insists, saying, “Yes, I am the wrong kind, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” And she stands, trusting in the love of God, in spite of what God says, trusting so humbly despite the reason he gives. She does not even invoke the love of God, she just appeals to its expression in daily life: I have no right to a loaf, just give me some crumbs. Christ’s clear and sharp refusal tests her faith and her prayer is fulfilled.
So often we implore God, saying, “O God, if. . . if Thou wilt. . . if Thou canst. . .,” just like the father, who says to Christ: “Your disciples have not been able to cure my little boy, if you can do anything, do it.” (Mark 9:22) Christ answers with another “if”: if you believe, however little, everything is possible with faith. Then the man says: “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” The two “ifs” are correlative, because if there is no faith there is also no possibility for God to enter into the situation.
The fact that one turns to God should be the proof of belief, but it is so only to a certain extent; we believe and we do not believe at the same time, and faith shows its measure by overcoming its own doubts. When we say: “Yes, I doubt, but I do believe in God’s love more than I trust my own doubts,” it becomes possible for God to act. But if one believes in law and not in grace, if one believes that the world as we know it with its mechanical laws is mechanical because God willed it to be nothing but a machine, then there is no place for God. Yet the heart’s experience, as well as modern science, teaches us that there is no such thing as the absolute law in which men believed in the nineteenth century. Whenever by faith the kingdom of God is re-created, there is a place for the laws of the kingdom to act, that is for God to come into the situation with his wisdom, his ability to do good within an evil situation, without, however, upsetting the whole world. Our “if” refers less to the power of God than to his love and concern; and God’s reply “if you can believe in my love, everything is possible” means that no miracle can happen unless, even in an incipient way, the kingdom of God is present.
A miracle is not the breaking of the laws of the fallen world, it is the re-establishment of the laws of the kingdom of God; a miracle happens only if we believe that the law depends not on the power but on the love of God. Although we know that God is almighty, as long as we think that he does not care, no miracle is possible; to work it God would have to enforce his will, and that he does not do, because at the very core of his relationship to the world, even fallen, there is his absolute respect for human freedom and rights. The moment you say: “I believe, and that is why I turned to you” implied: “I believe that you will be willing, that there is love in you, that you are actually concerned about every single situation.” The moment this grain of faith is there the right relationship is established and a miracle becomes possible.
Apart from this type of “if,” which refers to our doubt in the love of God, and which is wrong, there is a legitimate category of “if.” We can say: “I am asking this, if it is according to thy will, or if it is for the best, or if there is no secret evil intention in me when I ask,” and so on. All these “ifs” are more than legitimate, because they imply a diffident attitude to our own selves; and every prayer of petition should be an “if-prayer.”
As the church is an extension of Christ’s presence in time and space, any Christian prayer should be Christ praying although it implies a purity of heart that we do not possess. The prayers of the church are Christ’s prayers, particularly in the canon of the liturgy, where it is entirely Christ praying; but any other prayer in which we ask for something involving a concrete situation is always under “if.” In the majority of cases we do not know what Christ would have prayed for in this situation and so we introduce the “if,” which means that as far as we can see, as far as we know God’s will, this is what we wish to happen to meet his will. But the “if” also means: I am putting into these words my desire that the best should happen, and therefore you can alter this concrete petition to anything you choose, taking my intention, the desire that your will be done, even if I am unwise in stating how I should like it to be done, (Romans 8:26). When, for example, we pray for someone to recover, or to be back from a journey at a certain time, for some purpose we think essential, our real intention is the good of the person, but we are not clear-sighted about it, and our timing and planning may be wrong. “If” implies that so far as I can see what is right, be it done that way, but if I am mistaken, do not take me at my word but at my intention. The Staretz Ambrose of Optina had the kind of vision which allowed him to see a person’s real good. The monastery’s icon painter had just received a large sum of money and was about to start his journey home. He must have prayed that he might be on his way immediately; but the Staretz deliberately delayed the artist for three days, and in so doing saved him from being murdered and robbed by one of his workmen. When he eventually departed the villain had left his ambush, and it was only years later that the painter discovered from what danger the Staretz had protected him.
We sometimes pray for someone we love, who is in need and whom we are not able to help. Very often we do not know what the right thing is, we do not find the words to help even the most beloved. Sometimes we know that nothing can be done except to be silent, though we are ready to give our life to help. In that spirit we can turn to God, put the whole situation into his care and say: “O God, who knowest everything and whose love is perfect, take this life into thine hand, do what I long to do, but cannot.” Prayer being a commitment, we cannot pray in all truth for those whom we are not ourselves prepared to help. With Isaiah we must be ready to hear the Lord say “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and to answer: “Here am I, send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)