A young widow wrote to the great theologian Augustine to ask how to pray. Before Augustine answered this perennial question, he addressed a more fundamental one: “What manner of person should you be to pray?” This underlying question is often passed over in our rush to answer the felt need. But before we can really understand how, we need to look inwardly to our own hearts. The form of our prayers is meaningless if the form of our hearts is not shaped by Christ.
So what type of person ought we be in order to pray? Augustine argued that we ought to consider ourselves poor in this world. However prosperous we may be, we should understand that our wealth will not satisfy us. Comfort is not found in our things. We must be desirous of the life found only in God. Only then can we truly pray.
After addressing the central heart issue, Augustine then gave the young widow prayer advice that we might find odd. He simply advised her to “pray for a happy life.” By a “happy life” Augustine meant a life where one “has all that he wishes to have and wishes to have nothing which he ought not to wish.” The truly happy life is a life that desires God:
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple. (Ps. 27:4)
The happy life is marked primarily by a desire for and love of God. And if this is the case in one’s life, then all the other desires of one’s life will also be properly ordered.
Augustine illustrated this by going to the model prayer given to us by Jesus (Matt. 6:9–13). When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” (v. 11) or when we pray for needful things, our desires should be ordered by the wisdom of Proverbs 30:8: “Give me neither poverty nor riches.” It is good and leads to a happy life to ask for what is needful. But it is a misunderstanding of prayer to ask for riches, wealth, or honor in order to be greater than this or that man. Again, our hearts must be reoriented toward God before we ask for what we want. Our prayers are to ask God for neither too much nor too little.
Augustine finished his letter by noting that Paul’s words in Romans 8:26 linger. Paul wrote: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Mystery will remain for us because we will never fully understand the depths of God’s will. But prayer, when rightly ordered, teaches us to submit to God. It also teaches us patience and contentment. We learn that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for [His] power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Augustine wrote, “If you seek and relish the things that are above, you desire things everlasting and sure.”