There is no greater stumbling block in developing the spiritual life than the issue of “unanswered” prayer. When we pray from the depths of our hearts for what we honestly perceive as the good and God seems absent, it can send many into despair. St. Augustine tackles this in today’s Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours:
St Augustine’s letter to Proba
We do not know how to pray as we ought
Perhaps you may still ask why St Paul said when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, since it is impossible that he or those to whom he wrote should not have known the Lord’s Prayer.
Yet Paul himself was not exempt from such ignorance. When, to prevent him from becoming swollen-headed over the greatness of the revelations that had been given to him, he was given in addition a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him, he asked the Lord three times to take it away from him. Surely that was not knowing to pray as he ought? For in the end he heard the Lord’s reply, telling him why even such a great saint’s prayer had to be refused: “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.”
So when we are suffering afflictions that might be doing us either good or harm, we do not to know how to pray as we ought. But because they are hard to endure and painful, because they are contrary to our nature (which is weak) we, like all mankind, pray to have our afflictions taken from us. At least, though, we owe this much respect to the Lord our God, that if he does not take our afflictions away we should not consider ourselves ignored and neglected, but should hope to gain some greater good through the patient acceptance of suffering. “For my power is at its best in weakness.”
Scripture says this so that we should not be proud of ourselves if our prayer is heard, when we ask for something it would be better for us not to get; and so that we should not become utterly dejected if we are not given what we ask for, despairing of God’s mercy towards us: it might be that what we have been asking for could have brought us some still greater affliction, or it could have brought us the kind of good fortune that brings corruption and ruin. In such cases, it is clear that we cannot know how to pray as we ought.
Hence if anything happens contrary to our prayer, we ought to bear the disappointment patiently, give thanks to God, and be sure that it was better for God’s will to be done than our own. The Mediator himself has given us an example of this. When he had prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by,” he transformed the human will that was in him because he had assumed human nature and added “Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.” Thus, truly, By the obedience of one man many have been made righteous.
In a culture so saturated in addictions of every kind, the recovery of many will probably involve some “thorn in the flesh” for the rest of one’s life. The allure of the addictive behavior in moments of weakness may always be there, and when it manifests, it becomes an opportunity for God to manifest His strength and glory in our weakness. Augustine really says it all, and this passage is worth marinating in.