Ask and You Shall Receive! Ask Nicely… Ask Wisely… 9

Unchecked Irony Leads to Despair

Ask and you shall receive! Seek and you shall find! Knock and the door will be opened on to you! For whoever asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to whomever knocks, the door will be opened.

“So why is it,” many ask, “that I never get what I ask for?” Many people take this apparent contradiction to mean that God does not exist or he does not really love us. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon either personally or second hand. It’s not an easy question to answer, given the disposition of the one who asks.

St Augustine has a simple insight to resolve this apparent dilemma: Aut mali; aut male; aut mala (See De Civitate Dei, XX, 22 and 27; De Serm. Dom. In Monte, II, 27, 73).

When we do not get what we ask for in prayer, something is wrong on our part.

  • Either we’re bad (mali)
  • Or we pray badly (male)
  • Or we are asking for bad stuff (mala)

Think of a parent shopping at Walmart with her 3-year-old. The kid is so used to getting all sorts of good things, he thinks he automatically deserves it. So when he begs his mom for a Red Bull energy drink at the checkout counter, he naturally expects to get what he wants. Mom naturally thinks otherwise.

The child begins to ask nicely, using the all-powerful, magic word, “PLEASE!” Under normal circumstances, that ought to work. Why on earth would mom rebut him with a blunt No? 

To anyone who’s not a 3-year-old, it’s obvious that he’s asking for the wrong sort of thing (malum; pl. mala). Even if his mom explains that to him, he does not get it. He wants it. Now he thinks he has to have it. He reiterates, “PLEASE!!!” only louder this time.

At this point, other customers in the checkout line already notice that he is starting to ask badly (male) and they begin to anticipate the inevitable tantrum. Inevitably, the tantrum ensues. The boy has become malum (pl. mali).

Of course, we all understand that the kid is not evil incarnate. So what makes him bad? Or maybe that’s not the right question to ask, since the answer is so obvious.

What makes us bad, when we’re bad?

Hollywood has an ironic way of answering these sorts of questions.

It’s in the intention. The intention and the irony. (I’ll just assume you’ve seen the movie).

I chose the portrait of the “Drowning Girl,” by Roy Lichtenstein — master of banality — to start this post, because I like Roy! He’s such an artistic genius. He has an uncanny knack for manipulating the ironic to point out the consequences of irony.

A little irony and self-effacing humor can be a good thing (otherwise we’re in trouble, aren’t we!). In excess, we unwittingly allow it to overtake us and become our modus operandi. It can even shape and determine what we do and what we fail to do, how we think and who we are. It can desensitize us, even to ourselves, and cause us to become mali. And here’s what’s so ironic about it: we can think we’re so innocent, so good. (Read The Screwtape  Letters).

When we turn to God for answers, we need to check our intentions and check our irony at the door, before knocking. Ironically, we might need to purify our hearts in prayer, before be begin to pray.

Then, the God who is good and sees the good that is in our hearts will kindly give us what we ask for in prayer; for he already knows what we need even before we ask him for it.


  1. This is exactly what I needed to hear and now I have to do a lot of soul searching and praying, for the answers.

  2. “When we turn to God for answers, we need to check our intentions and check our irony at the door, before knocking. Ironically, we might need to purify our hearts in prayer, before be begin to pray.” I don’t know about you, but for me, this is so hard to do……..and, before we can do anything at all, we need God’s grace

    • You’re right. We need to bring it all to prayer. It’s all part of us. If we don’t bring the part that needs do be purified to prayer, how can it be purified in prayer? There’s a mystery to all this. We obviously can’t just “check everything at the door.” But many times we need to see what is in our hearts before we can pray with purity of intention. In prayer, God can reveal the intention of the heart to us.

      It’s a process of conversion and growth involving grace and a lot of persistence on our part (pray without ceasing). Ultimately, as you say, it’s grace. Without grace, we can do nothing; with it we can do all things.

      Finally, A lot of it depends on the person in question. When we think of prayer as part of one’s personal relationship with Christ, everyone is in a different place, on a different path, called to do different things. For some people, at a certain point in their lives, the call is just to believe. What is stopping them from believing? What’s in the heart? Aut mali, aut male, aut mala. Some people need to hear that. When I tell this to people who I think need to hear it — I’m talking about tough sinners, non-believers, or deeply confused people — they get the point and usually affirm that it is true.

      Not everyone needs to have it put to them that way.

  3. I, too, really needed to hear this. I loved the example of the 3 year old, it was perfect and made it all clear. The Lichtenstein print was wonderful, too. Made me laugh.
    I get so much insight from your blog. I’ve been thinking much about purity of intention with icons, and of course it holds true for all forms of prayer.

    • Thanks Reinkat! It’s hard to believe that we often behave like 3 year olds before God, but then, for some reason, the example strikes home. Odd, isn’t it. This really ought to encourage us, since Jesus said: “Let the children come to me!” and “Unless you become like a child,…”

      God bless!

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