For St. Augustine,  God’s omnipotence expresses itself in a complete control over all that occurs in the universe. In the previous post we cited a statement that he made in his work “On the Holy Trinity”:  “The omnipotent God . . . is never unjust in what He does, never does anything except of His own free-will, and never wills anything that He does not perform.” (NPNF 1.3, 270)  This means that God always carries out the things that He wants to see happen.  He requires no collaboration from people, no obedience from people, and no prayer from people.  He always does exactly what He desires, and all that He desires is exactly what He does.

This particular theology leads us to wonder how Augustine thought about prayer.

Among Augustine's personal letters, we have a copy of his correspondence with a noble Roman woman named Proba. She had written to him regarding her concern that in light of Romans 8:26 (which says "we know not how we ought to pray") ,she might be asking God for innapropriate things. Augustine’s response to her illuminates the framework of his theology on prayer. 

His initial response was this: “Pray for a happy life . . . He, therefore, is truly happy who has all that he wishes to have, and wishes to have nothing which he ought not to wish." (NPNF 1.1, 462)  This rather pithy summary of his thought is strikingly similar to the Stoic view of life. Diogenes Laertius said: "And this itself is the virtue of the happy man and a smooth flow of life, whenever all things are done according to the harmony of the spirit in each of us with the will of the ruler of the universe." (Stoics Reader, 88)  And Epictetus wrote that the man free from burdens is: "He who desires nothing that belongs to others. And what are the things which belong to others? Those which are not in our power either to have or not to have, or to have of a certain kind or in a certain manner.” (Discourses, 313-314)  Thus, both Augustine and the Stoics agreed that contentment with one's circumstances should be one of our highest aspirations. And for Augustine, this was the primary objective of prayer.

As Augustine continues his reflections, he notes that God tells us “to ask, and seek and knock.”  But this is not because our asking has any bearing on what God will do.  Rather this command is given in order that “by prayer there may be exercised in us by supplications that desire by which we may receive what He prepares to bestow.” (NPNF 1.1, 464)  In other words, prayer is the way that God prepares our hearts for the things that He gives us. Since God already knows everything that we need, we should never think that prayer is somehow for Him. Commenting on Phil. 4:6 he notes that the command to "Let your requests be made known unto God,” does not mean that God needs to hear our requests. He "certainly knew them before they were uttered." Rather, in prayer our petitions, "are to be made known to ourselves in the presence of God by patient waiting upon Him." (NPNF 1.1, 465)

When he comes to the topic of the Lord’s Prayer, he remarks that most of this prayer serves as a series of reminders to ourselves.  We admonish ourselves to desire the honor of His name. We stir up our desire for the kingdom. We ask for the grace of obedience. We ask for contentment with what we have. We remind ourseleves of what we must ask and what we must do. We admonish ourselves to resist temptation and set our hope upon deliverance from evil. (NPNF 1.1 p 465) Thus, for Augustine the Lord's Prayer is more a guide for personal reflection, and not an intercessory prayer for the world.

And this characterizes his overall attitude towards prayer. He writes: “To us, therefore, words (or prayers) are necessary, so that by them we may be helped to consider and reflect on what we ask, not as means by which we expect that God is to be either informed or moved to compliance.”  In other words, our prayers have no influence whatsoever on God. Ultimately, they are not for God, they are for us. Thus, the efficacy of prayer lies not in that it moves God into action, but rather in the result that it brings about inside of us.

Few people will disagree with Augustine in his assertion that the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer have an internal application.  Nor will many disagree with his teaching that prayer is of enormous benefit to the individual.  But is this the sole purpose of prayer?

In the next post we’ll connect with another church father named Tertullian. In contrast to St. Augustine, he viewed prayer as a powerful tool of persuasion, that could detain God’s wrath and move Him to mercy. Tertullian believed that prayer could alter the course of history. He was even so bold to say, “Prayer alone conquers God.”