“YOU RECEIVE NOT BECAUSE YOU ASK AMISS.”
Many there are who ask graces from God but do not obtain them. And why is this? St. James answers and says they receive not because they do not ask as they should. You ask and receive not, because you ask amiss (iv. 3). How can God hear the sinner who prays to Him to be freed from affliction, when he will not abandon sin which is the cause of all his miseries? We cannot expect to be heard unless our prayer be accompanied by a firm purpose to amend.
God desires to deliver us from every evil, and to share His blessings with us, but He wishes us to ask Him in prayer, and so to pray that we may deserve to be heard. How can God listen to the prayer of the sinner who prays to Him that he may be freed from his afflictions, whilst he is unwilling to abandon sin, which is the cause of his afflictions? When the impious Jeroboam stretched out his hand against the Prophet, who reproached him with his wretchedness, the Lord caused his hand to wither up, so that he could not draw it back. And his hand which he stretched forth against him withered, and he was not able to draw it back again to him (3 Kings xiii. 4). Then the king turned to the man of God, and besought him to beg of the Lord to restore his hand. Theodoret says with regard to this circumstance: “Fool that he was to have asked the Prophet’s prayers for the restoration of his hand, and not pardon of his sins.” Thus do many act; they beg of God to deliver them from their afflictions; they beg of the servants of God to avert by their prayers the threatened chastisements, but they do not seek to obtain the grace of abandoning their sins and changing their lives. And how can such persons hope to be freed from chastisement when they will not remove its cause? It is accursed sin that arms the hand of the Lord with thunders to chastise and afflict us. “Punishment is the fine that is to be paid for sin,” says Tertullian. The afflictions we suffer are a fine which must be paid by him whom sin has subjected to the penalty. St. Basil in like manner says that sin is a note of hand which we give against ourselves. Since we sin, we voluntarily go into debt to God’s justice. It is not God, then, who makes us miserable; it is sin. Sin maketh nations miserable (Prov. xiv. 34). Sin it is which obliges God to create chastisements: Famine, and affliction, and scourges, all these things are created for the wicked (Ecclus. xl. 9).
Jeremias, addressing the sword of the Lord, says: O thou sword of the Lord, how long will thou not be quiet? Go into thy scabbard, rest and be still (Jer. xlvii. 6). But then, he goes on to say: How shall it be quiet when the Lord hath given it a charge against Ascalon? How can the sword of the Lord ever be at rest if sinners do not choose to abandon their sins, not-withstanding that the Lord has given a charge to his sword to execute vengeance as long as sinners shall continue to deserve it? But some will say, we make Novenas, we fast, we give alms, we pray to God: why are we not heard? To them the Lord replies, When they fast, I will not hear their prayers, and if they offer holocausts and victims, I will not receive them; for I will consume them by the sword, and by famine, and by the pestilence (Jer. xiv. 12). The Lord exclaims: How can I hear the prayers of those who beg to be freed from their afflictions, and not from their sins, because they do not wish to reform? What care I for their fasts, and their sacrifices, and their alms, when they will not change their lives? I will consume them by the sword. With all their prayers and devotions, and penitential exercises, I shall be obliged by My justice to punish them.
We must not then trust to prayers and other devotions if they are not accompanied by a resolution to amend. You pray, you smite your breast, and call for mercy; but that is not enough. The impious Antiochus prayed, but the Scriptures tell us his prayers failed to obtain mercy from God. Then this wicked man prayed to the Lord, of whom he was not to obtain mercy (2 Mach. ix. 13). The unhappy man, finding himself devoured by worms, and near his end, prayed for life, but without having sorrow for his sins.
What hope can we have in our Saints if we do not purpose to amend? Some say we have our Patron or some other Saint who will defend us; we have our Mother Mary to procure our deliverance. Who hath showed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance. And think not to say within yourselves: We have Abraham for our father (Matt. iii. 7, 8, 9). How can we think to escape punishment if we do not abandon sin? How can the Saints think of assisting us if we persist in exasperating the Lord? St. John Chrysostom asks of what use was Jeremias to the Jews? The Jews had Jeremias to pray for them, but, notwithstanding all the prayers of that holy Prophet, they were chastised, because they did not want to give up their sins. Beyond doubt, says the holy Doctor, the prayers of the Saints contribute much to obtain Divine mercy for us, but when? — when we do penance. They are useful, but only when we do ourselves violence to abandon sin, to fly occasions, and return to God’s favour.
The emperor Phocas, in order to defend himself from his enemies, raised walls and multiplied fortifications, but he heard a voice saying to him from Heaven: “You build walls, but when the enemy is within, the city is easily taken.” We must then expel this enemy, which is sin, from our souls, otherwise God cannot exempt us from chastisement, because He is just, and cannot leave sin unpunished. Another time the citizens of Antioch prayed to Mary to avert from them a scourge which was on them; and whilst they were praying, St. Bertoldus heard the Divine Mother’s voice from Heaven, saying: “Abandon your sins, and I will be propitious to you.”
Let us, then, beg of the Lord to use mercy towards us, but let us pray as David prayed: Lord, incline unto my aid (Ps. lxix. 2). God wishes to aid us, but He wishes that we should aid ourselves, by doing all that depends upon us. “He who desires to be assisted,” says Hilaretus, “must do all he can to assist himself.” God wishes to save us, but we must not imagine that God will do all without our doing anything. St. Augustine says: “He who created you without your help, will not save you without your help.”