The Purpose of Prayer

Not too long ago I found myself in a discussion with a Puerto Rican pastor about prayer. I dare say that most Christians believe that prayer changes our circumstances, but I say that prayer is designed to change our perceptions.

There are various New Testament passages on prayer, perhaps the most famous of which is Jesus’ exemplar of the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

The form of this prayer 1) ack­nowl­edges God’s supremacy, 2) sub­ordin­ates our will to God’s will, 3) asks for our physical needs to be met, 4) asks for forgiveness, 5) asks for help reflecting God’s character, 6) asks for God’s protection, and 7) acknowledges that we are powerless to change our circumstances because that ability is God’s alone. I would even submit that all seven elements are all structured around a meditation of peace, that is, that all seven elements aim to reduce our anxiety, fear, and self-loathing. It frees us from feeling inadequate and unworthy. It reminds us that we are powerless to control the future and even the daily challenges, but that we trust in an almighty savior.

There are other passages of scripture that have been interpreted to mean that we should pray repeatedly, but I don’t think that those passages should be applied to every situation. Constant general prayerfulness is a good thing, but that is not necessarily true of constant specific prayer. In fact, just a few verses before The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is recorded as saying that “when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” or “when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7 KJV, NIV). What’s more, the passage further notes that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 NIV). So if God already knows our needs, our prayer cannot possibly be so much about informing God of our needs as much as it is about meditating upon and releasing those things that are outside of our control, and about realizing and internalizing those things that are within our control.

The form of the Lord’s Prayer is such that it is appropriate to be repeated. This is to say, the needs that this prayer addresses present themselves anew every single day so it is appropriate to pray in this form every single day. But if we are praying, say, for healing of a particular ailment, if we have faith that God hears us and if we have faith that God is concerned for our needs, then what reason is there to pray for that need repeatedly? I would submit that to pray repeatedly demonstrates a lack of faith because we interpret the perceived absence of fulfillment as evidence that God has denied the supplication so we pray repeatedly to try to convince God to act in the way that we want Him to act. But that is not the way of faith. No, faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 KJV).

The foregoing having been said, it does appear that God’s plans can be changed through certain types of discourse which could be considered prayer but are more properly described as conversation. Through dialogue, Abraham changed God’s mind about destroying Lot’s family living in Sodom (Genesis 18); through Socratic debate, Moses changed God’s mind about destroying the Israelites (Exodus 32); and with soliloquy, Hezekiah changed God’s mind about the span of his life (2 Kings 20). Now some would argue that humans cannot compel a sovereign deity to do anything—which is true—but I think that persuasion is not the same as compulsion and that God was persuaded by the attitude of the orator. Others might say that God did not really change his mind but rather was testing the human response—and this may also be true—but I believe that God’s “tests” are to teach us how to be more like Him, not to see if we will perform like a trained monkey. But in speaking of the end times, Matthew 24:20 certainly suggests that God can still be persuaded for it is written to “pray that your flight will not be in winter or on the Sabbath” and elsewhere that “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36 NIV). So while the events of the End Times are already foreknown by God, Jesus gives the impression that God can be persuaded to alter certain particular and specific details. And this is in line with the instances of Abraham, Moses, and Hezekiah.

I believe that the main purpose of prayer is to help ourselves come to a place where we can admit that we are incapable of changing our circumstance and surrendering ourselves to accept that the circumstances are beyond our control. Human nature is to try to control our circumstances but those efforts are futile and lead to stress and anxiety. Prayer, therefore, frees us of those worries and thus is more about changing our perception of circumstances than it is about changing the circumstances.

Consider this song by Hillary Scott

And this song by Scott Krippayne

One Reply to “The Purpose of Prayer”

  1. This post started brewing Dec 28, 2017 with the Hillary Scott song (as I reached my driveway) before revisiting it Mar 11, 2018, and finishing it on Mar 27, 2018

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