Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
It’s great to have strong faith, to feel confident in what you believe.
That way you can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
But not everybody is at that point.
Some people are still coming to faith. Other people find their faith wavering at times.
So what about then? Is it okay to pray when you have doubts?
A Real Question
This is a real question. A reader writes:
I am going through a rough time and wanted to know whether it is okay to pray the rosary while being a bit skeptic about Jesus and Mary.
I find it a bit difficult to believe that Jesus is God, that Mary intercedes for me, that God exists, and that God has no evil in him.
Do you think, if God exists, it would be okay for doubting him while praying--or praying without hoping that somebody out there is listening?
Do you think its okay to pray to the Father than going through the Son and his Mother?
I’d like to say first that I am sorry that the reader is going through a rough time. I have been through rough times myself, and I will be praying for him.
I also invite other readers to pray for him and for everyone who is suffering. Whenever possible, I like to universalize my prayers that way.
Whenever I’m praying for someone in particular, I try also to pray for everyone else facing that difficulty. One of my favorite prayers is found in the Divine Mercy Chaplet:
“For the sake of His [Jesus’] sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
I’m also pleased to give the reader good news regarding his own prayers . . .
Why We Pray
It’s helpful to remember the fundamental purpose of prayer. It is not to give God information that he didn’t have or to change his mind about what is best for us.
He already knows everything, including what is best for us. Thus Jesus tells us: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).
So why do we pray?
It’s because God wants us to be drawn out of ourselves, into relationships of love and compassion.
Praying to him draws us out of ourselves and makes us think about our Creator. It helps build our relationship with him.
Praying for other people also draws us out of ourselves and makes us think—and care—about other people.
Asking them to pray for us gives them the opportunity to do the same.
And so God has made some of his gifts contingent upon us asking for them, so that we might grow closer to him and to each other in a symphony of love and compassion.
Bearing that in mind . . .
What God is ultimately concerned with is that we grow closer to him in prayer.
It doesn’t matter where we are in our spiritual journey. No matter where we are, he wants us to come closer.
And so he’s not going to spurn people who are struggling with doubts when they pray to him.
They’re doing what he wants. They’re turning to him. They’re deliberately opening themselves to him.
They’re either coming to him for the first time or they coming to him in spite of the difficulties they are facing in their faith life.
God values both of those!
What About Strong Doubts?
What about praying amid really strong doubts? What if someone is praying without hoping that there is someone listening, as the reader says?
In this case, I think we need to distinguish between different kinds of hope.
In one sense, hope is an optimistic, positive feeling.
This is not necessary to pray. It is certainly desirable, and something to be worked toward, to have an optimistic, positive feeling that God is there and listening.
It’s even better to go beyond that kind of hope, to a warm, confident feeling that God is there and listening. That is also something to work toward.
But neither is necessary.
Because the very fact that you bother praying is a sign that points to a different and more important kind of hope.
The very fact of asking God for help means that, even if you don’t have an optimistic, positive feeling that he is there, you still want him to be there, you still want his help, and you are opening yourself to him and taking the time to talk to him, to pour out your heart to him.
Feelings come and go, but actions are what count, and the act of praying is itself an act of hope—the kind of hope that counts.
God is pleased by your just making the effort—particularly when doubts are the strongest.
Helpers in Prayer
The reader asked whether you have to pray to Jesus and Mary or whether you can just pray to God the Father.
The answer is that you can pray just to the Father, but it’s better to ask for others to help you with their prayers as well.
Remember: The whole point of prayer is that God wants us to turn outward in a symphony of love and compassion.
Given that, we can reason that God will encourage us to pray for others and ask others for their prayers by making some of his gifts contingent on this.
It’s one more step in accomplishing his grand design of love.
And so we should seek out helpers in prayer—prayer partners—both here on earth (where people still need our prayers) and in heaven also.
Who better to have interceding with the Father than his own Son? Than his Holy Spirit? And the Mother of his Son?
Dealing with the Doubts
God is happy to reach you wherever you are in your faith journey.
Any beginning is better than no beginning.
It is better to pray than not to pray.
But he does want you to progress in your journey, and so it’s good to deal with the things that cause the doubts.
Sometimes these are intellectual difficulties that can be cleared away.
I would thus encourage the reader to try to resolve his doubts, a bit at a time, through study and reflection.
There are many resources online that can help with that, including the material at the web site Catholic.com. They even have forums where you can ask questions if you don’t find what you need elsewhere.
(In particular, Catholic.com has resources on why Jesus is God and why the intercession of the saints and the rosary are good.)
The Importance of Growing Closer
While God does not demand that we already have faith, or strong faith, to pray to him, he does want us to come to have these.
Starting to pray to him is a good beginning.
And he will reward us for cultivating the virtues we need. This is part of the principle expressed in the book of James:
The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects [James 5:16].
The righteous are those who have grown close to God, who have grown strong faith and personal holiness.
The more we ourselves can grow in those virtues, the more effective our prayers will be.
Sometimes the Answer is No
This does not mean that we will automatically get what we wish to have through prayer.
Sometimes what we are asking for actually will be bad for us, and God loves us to much to give it to us.
Sometimes there is a competing good that God wants us, or someone else, to have, and so our particular request cannot be fulfilled—or fulfilled yet.
But we should still make the effort in prayer to ask, because that builds our relationship with God and with others.
The Glory to Come
Even if we don’t get what we wish, we can—from the perspective of faith—trust that God will make sure we ultimately get what we need.
As St. Paul says:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal [2 Corinthians 4:16-18].
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us [Romans 8:18].
And so I encourage the reader: Pray! Don’t worry about your doubts! God is happy that you make the effort!
Do your best to grow closer to him over time. Seek the help of others who believe in him.
Come to him, his family, his Church.
They are there to help.
While it is “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), we can enter it.
He will guide us there if we open ourselves to him and persevere in our efforts to follow him.
In closing, I would like to thank the reader for writing, and I would like to say that I admire him for being willing to pray in spite of his doubts.
I will be praying for him, and others will be as well.
God bless you, brother!
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