Why pray? As I look around me today, I think that prayer is probably one of the most misunderstood things about God and faith, primarily because we don’t pray for the same reason, and many of us don’t even understand why we pray at all. If you don’t know why you pray, then you won’t know how to pray. Why pray?
There are several basic answers to this question. Do you pray so that you can enlist God’s power on your behalf? Many people do. Is prayer all about power? If so, that will affect the way that you pray. Do you pray so that you can find inner peace in times of stress? Many people do. Is prayer all about serenity? If so, that will affect the way that you pray. Do you pray because you think that it is the right thing to do? Is prayer about duty? That too will affect the way that you pray.
Maybe a more interesting question is, why does God want us to pray? Why does He care? Why does it matter to Him in the slightest? I think that we have a pretty different idea about the purpose of prayer than God does because our perspectives are so vastly different. However, some of the struggles that we have with prayer come from that confusion. What is the purpose of prayer? Why pray?
1) Prayer is about relationship.
From a human perspective, prayer is often about power. How can I get God’s attention? How can I get God on my side? How can I pray so that He will grant my requests? That has after all, been the essence of prayer across all of time and across many religious cultures. Prayer was about obtaining the favor of deity for the purpose of meeting one’s needs. I would say that for many people, that is still the case. We tend to pray when we have something that we need to ask of God, and no other time. From our perspective, prayer is about power.
If you think that prayer is about power then you will focus on the performance, because you think that something in the words you use will cause God to respond, when He might not otherwise. This approach to prayer is really no different from a magic spell. We’ve all seen Harry Potter. If you are a wizard, then the power is in getting the words just right. The same is true with this approach to prayer, and was roundly condemned by Jesus as a passive-aggressive attempt to control God. He said that the “hypocrites” pray long prayers on the street corners with many repetitions so that they might be “heard” by God. If prayer is about power, it is because we don’t know God well and don’t understand the purpose of prayer.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, this after listening to Him pray. This is the only time in the gospels when the disciples request any teaching of Jesus at all. Why this topic? Why was this so important? For the same reason that it is for us. Because life is incredibly hard, and most of us are just looking for some power to deal with the struggle. The more desperate the struggle, the more people tend to be interested in prayer. I don’t believe that this was an academic exercise for them, any more than it is for you or me.
From a divine perspective, prayer is about relationship. It isn’t about trying to perform for God in order to please Him. It isn’t about finding just the right words to say to get what we need. Children do that with their parents. Instead, prayer is about growing in a relationship with God, and so Jesus writes a model prayer for them to use, with categories that are expandable. This is a prayer that disciples can learn and grow with—not to repeat verbatim, necessarily—but over time, to begin to fill in the spaces with their own words. And look how He begins that prayer: “Father.” He recognizes the relationship before He begins.
Prayer is about building a relationship of intimacy and dependence with your Father in heaven. It is not about power; it is about relationship.
2) Prayer is about spiritual growth.
After giving them this model prayer, Jesus relates two somewhat bizarre and challenging parables. The first is about a man who goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night to ask for bread. He has had unexpected visitors and has no bread to feed them, a faux-pas in the ancient world, and is desperate to save face. The groggy neighbor resists opening the door, even though the man persists, as he doesn’t want to disturb his sleeping children. Because of the man’s perseverance, however, he relents, grudgingly opening the door and granting the request.
This first parable is rather odd, in that we are tempted to compare God to the friend who won’t open his door and help his neighbor. That is an odd example, because it seems like it is so beneath God. But the point of comparison is not the character of God to the grumpy neighbor, but to the situation that prayer puts us in, a situation of complete lack of control and utter dependence. So often, prayer feels like a closed door that won’t open no matter how long or hard we knock. This parable perfectly captures the frustration of prayer.
We have to get beneath this parable, however, and ask a deeper question: Why does God delay? Why are we forced to wait for an answer to something that is so critical to life? Why must we knock and knock and be ignored? If God cares, then why is perseverance even an issue? If He is sovereign, couldn’t He respond to our needs in a timely manner? Why does He force us to wait for an answer? Doesn’t that sound a little cruel to you? If you think that prayer is about power or even serenity, then you have to wrestle with some serious questions.
Has it ever occurred to you that God actually wants you to be in this position? Waiting isn’t about Him; it is about us. Prayer isn’t just about power or about serenity. God’s goals for us are different from our goals for ourselves. I don’t know about you, but my goal for myself is to have my needs met as quickly as possible in order to avoid as much pain as possible. But what is God’s goal? God’s goal is not to alleviate struggle, but to change me deeply.
The reason that we are to persevere in prayer is not because He can’t get it done, or wants us to suffer, but because waiting deeply changes us in a way that nothing else can. There are things that happen in your soul when you are forced to wait, things that can’t happen any other way. There is brokenness. There is surrender. There is a real dependence that comes. There is humility.
So I return to the original question, why pray? If the main purpose of prayer is to fill our needs, then perseverance doesn’t make any sense, and it seems completely beneath God. What kind of friend wouldn’t help, if he could? No one. That’s the point. Prayer is intended to involve struggle, because it is about changing you at the deepest level. Change can be painful, even agonizing at times, but it is also necessary. Prayer is about spiritual growth.
3) Prayer is about coming to know and trust God.
The second parable is more straightforward, but is necessary to understand the first, because it is all about coming to know the character of God. Jesus asks the disciples about the character of a father—any father—in giving gifts. What kind of father would give a scorpion when his child has asked for an egg? A stone instead of bread? A serpent for a fish? The answer is meant to be obvious—no father. So doesn’t it make sense to trust your Father in heaven, who knows how to give good gifts to His children? You don’t have to be a father to figure this one out.
A father gives good gifts because he loves his children, and knows what they want and need, and on occasion, those two things—what we want and what we need—do overlap in our lives. Sometimes the very things that we want are also the things we most need, and that is wonderful. But often, that is not the case. On occasion, the gift that we need is not the gift we want, and the gift that we want would actually damage us deeply. A father gives good gifts because he loves us.
Sometimes we can’t recognize good gifts, because they aren’t actually what we have been asking for. Sometimes a gift seems like a scorpion to us on the surface, when it is actually an egg. We can’t tell the difference. Or, sometimes something might look like bread to us, and we ask for it over and over again, but it turns out that it is actually a stone, and we would never have known that until we bit into it. In fact, I have found in life that you don’t know what you have been rescued from. You might never find out how that gift would have blown up in your face: maybe the person that you wanted to marry, or the place that you wanted to live, or the job opportunity that went to someone else, or the kids that you wanted to have.
The secret of prayer is about coming to know and trust the character of God our Father. Prayer is the way that we learn who God is in those moments of yearning and disappointment, who is able to shield you from the scorpion that looked to you like an egg, or grant you the bread that looked to you like a stone. You learn who God is by experience, experiencing His presence in your life and in prayer, seeing just how much He loves you. That happens as you keep on knocking, as you keep on seeking and asking. You will not grow in faith without a vital prayer life—it is a non-negotiable. Prayer is the way that you come to know and trust God.
If you think that prayer is about power or serenity, or even duty, then you will quickly lose interest or become greatly disappointed, which amounts to the same thing. But if you realize that prayer is where you come to know God, experiencing His love and the closeness of His Spirit, then you’ll know that it is the place where you’re able to tell the difference between a scorpion and an egg. You’ll know the difference because you’ll know by experience who your Father really is. You won’t know how to pray, unless you know why you pray.