Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. James 5:16
This may seem like an odd question to ask, especially from a pulpit, and perhaps one with a terribly obvious answer. Nonetheless, I think it is a question with which every believer wrestles. We struggle with this question even though answer is obvious: the Bible tells us to pray. However, without a clear understanding of why we ought to pray, our prayers are feeble, perfunctory, and sparse—a rotten mustard seed.
Of course, not all prayer is asking God for something. Prayer includes praise and thanksgiving, but biblically understood prayer almost always includes petitioning God for something—asking for His kingdom to come, asking for our daily bread, asking for forgiveness. So, when we ask, “Why pray?” we are seeking to understand why we ought to be asking God for things. At the risk, of raising questions some have never considered, let me present some reasons for not praying.
First, if the sovereignty of God is understood as Him ordering all events according to His will, it is hard to understand how praying is going change anything God does. If God has from the beginning of time determined everything that happens, then our prayers are not going to change anything. Some have said that “Prayer does not change God, it changes us.” Indeed, we can be changed by prayer. Of course, to be consistent with this idea of sovereignty, we would have to admit that our prayers can’t really change us unless God in His sovereignty has already decided to change us. This therapeutic view of prayer changing us is popular because it avoids the uncomfortable idea that God’s will may not be accomplished because His people have not prayed.
To be fair, even though Augustine and Calvin uphold God’s absolute control over all events, both say prayer remains important because God has sovereignly decided to do some things in response to our prayers. But this raises the question of whether we freely choose to pray or if we simply wait for God to cause us to pray. Calvin and Augustine, to be consistent, must regard a decision not to pray as the result of God’s sovereign will and providence. Nonetheless, I think few believers can grasp or explain how meaningful prayer and God’s absolute control are compatible.
A second reason for not praying is the assertion that God is love and is always acting in love toward everyone to the fullest measure. Some see the idea that God will do more for someone because of our prayers as denying God’s loving character. Is God going to heal someone just because we prayed? Doesn’t God already love them enough to heal them? Do we really need to persuade God to love others more? God is, after all, love. It seems reasonable to trust God to do what is best for those we love without us nagging Him with our prayers and intercession.
Third, isn’t simple communion with God, without us asking Him for things, a higher form of prayer? Isn’t it more spiritual, some say, to seek the Giver instead of the gifts? Combined with a fatalistic resignation to God’s sovereign will, this approach to prayer can appear spiritually superior to petitionary prayer. This higher form of prayer stops at “Our Father, hallowed be Thy name.” It skips, “Give us our daily bread.” It seems like a less selfish and more spiritual way of praying.
So why pray? The answer really is, “Because the Bible says so”. But to pray with purpose, energy, and faith we must believe all the other things the Bible says about prayer even if it challenges our theology.
First, we must believe God acts in response to our prayers. We can admit He may not act when we want or how we want, but we must believe God acts. This is certainly the point James makes in chapter five when he urges the elders to pray for the sick. His claim that the “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” is followed up by the example of God answering Elijah’s prayer for rain. Psalm after psalm celebrates a God who hears the cries of His people and responds with salvation, deliverance, protection, and redemption. We should believe that prayer, especially the prayers of the weak and oppressed, change history.
If we argue that asking God to do things is unspiritual or less spiritual, we are arguing with Jesus. In Luke 18 Jesus exhorts us to pray without losing heart by telling the story of widow who persistently demanded justice from an unjust judge. Luke presents the purpose of the parable as being “to show that all times they ought to pray and not lose heart.” No matter how much it may trouble our theology, the parable clearly teaches that some things happen and don’t happen because of our persistence in prayer.
If this parable is not clear enough, in John 14 we find Jesus telling His disciples, “And whatsoever you may ask in my name, that will I do that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” Again, in Chapter 15, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.” And again. in the next chapter, “Until now you have asked nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.” No one can be a “red-letter Christian” and deny that Jesus urges us to ask.
We should pray because we belong to a king and a kingdom that is invading the kingdom of darkness. Think about it, if God is in absolute control of all things in the world, why would Jesus teach us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” The Lord’s prayer only makes sense if there are things on earth that are not His will and places where His kingdom has not yet come.
Saying, “Thy will be done” is not passive resignation to God’s will. It is not saying “Whatever” to God. It is flying a banner welcoming King Jesus. It is blowing a trumpet announcing a new king! Is throwing open the gates of hearts, families, and lives to the rule of God! If Adam and Eve’s faith in the words of the serpent could bring about the fall of humankind, the corruption of creation, and death, what will our prayers bring when we place our faith in God’s Word and son Jesus? After Paul’s detailed description of spiritual warfare and putting on the armor of God, he concludes with an exhortation to pray:
With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and prayer for the saints. Ephesians 6:18
Even though there is no doubt that God has called us to pray, and to pray with the expectation that God acts in response to our prayers, we still haven’t answered the question as to why God has called us to pray or why He advances His kingdom through the prayers of His people. Jesus, after all, in the Sermon on Mount declares that our Father in heaven already knows what we need before we ask him. So why ask?
The answer to this question is not found in any one verse, but rather in the whole sweep of Biblical revelation. God desires relationship with his creation. He long for us to rule with Him, not just under him. It is not control that is at heart of God’s glory! It is love and relationship. The result of this is that God has ordained to work through His people. In I Corinthians 3:9, Paul speaks of being a fellow worker with God. In I Thessalonians 3:2 Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother and God’s co-worker in the gospel of Christ.
We are part of God’s project, and his project is centered on relationship. It is not that God needs us; it is that He wants us. He has called His people, the church, to become a bride for His Son. The whole of history marches to a Wedding. So, relationship with God is central to all God’s purposes. Prayer matters because it keeps us in relationship.
My last reason for praying is more personal, even though Biblical. I am greatly encouraged by the story of the Roman centurion Cornelius who becomes the first Gentile in Acts to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10 we are told that he gave alms to the people and “prayed continually. One day an angel appears to him and tells him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” He is instructed to send for Peter who comes and preaches about Jesus. In the middle of his sermon the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and his whole household.
Because of this story, I pray to build-up memorials of prayer before God. I have built them for my children, for churches, and for cities, especially Myrtle Point. I do not know how this works, but I believe at the right time my prayers combined with your prayers will release the power of God to make the hearts of people in our town tender toward God.
I also believe my prayers raise up a shield of protection over my children and friends. When the accuser of the brethren demands his rights to those who have strayed into his territory, I believe my prayers give God just reason to show mercy and pour out grace. I have no wealth or land to give my children and grandchildren. But I can give my heart. I can pray.