Why do we pray?

Luke 11:1-13

Ask and you shall receive.  Seek and you shall find.  Knock and the door shall be opened.

Back in my second year of teaching, I had just finished giving the orientation session about chapel life at the theological college.

A brand new student, a man twice my age who was there to study for ordination came up to me while everyone else started walking towards the cafeteria.  He looked at me and said, “just so you know, I’m happy to say the words from the book like everyone else, but I really don’t pray”.

I can only imagine the look on my face.  Here was a man who left a successful career and moved his family to a new state to train for ordained ministry, announcing, on his first day, that he doesn’t pray.

He went on – “I just don’t really believe in the whole idea of prayer”, he said.  “It doesn’t make any sense to me.  If God is really everywhere and knows everything, then why does he need me telling him what’s going on?  And, if God really is good and loving, why does he need me to beg for his goodness?  I just don’t see the need of prayer, so I just don’t do it”, he said. 

It was a pretty troubling first conversation with this new student, but, as I reflected on our lessons today, it raises an important question.  There’s no doubt from scripture that prayer is central to a Christian’s life, but, why is it that we pray?

Why do we pray?

Beginning with the Old Testament, the one true living God is revealed as one who is actively involved in the world around us.  Of course, one of the glories of creation is that God created the complex systems that unfold each new day: the sun rising and setting, the change of seasons, water evaporating and falling back as rain, even the trees that clean the air that we breathe.  He created all that is, but didn’t just ‘set it and forget it’, but is deeply interested in each human person, created in his image.

God, who is infinite and truly beyond our comprehension, desires to be close to us.

And, that’s the first point we need to make about prayer: yes, God knows what we pray long before we ask; yes, God’s understanding of our lives far surpasses our limited knowledge, but God doesn’t use prayer as a news report.  God isn’t waiting for us to come to him with the evening news, as though we’re announcing things he doesn’t know.

Rather, prayer is about relationship

And, in any relationship, communication is essential.

Think of any loving parent with a little child, maybe one who is just learning to read.  The child is experiencing new things, learning new things, trying new things, and probably struggling with new things.  Some days the child runs into the room, bursting with excitement to share some new fact about dinosaurs or race cars or horses; sometimes the child stomps into the room, announcing that they now hate their best friend and will never talk to her again. 

The parent, of course, doesn’t need the child to teach them about dinosaurs or horses. 

The loving parent doesn’t even need the child to announce why they’re upset and stomping or sulking; the loving parent already knows something is wrong with their child just from the look on their face.

But, it’s that conversation, it’s that communication, that makes the relationship valuable; that makes it life-giving.

When God the Father says that we are his children, part of the relationship that comes from that invitation is that we would communicate with him, and the way we do that is by prayer.

And, this might go without saying, but the frequency of communication is central in any relationship.  If I only spoke to my wife for an hour on Sunday morning, we’d hardly call it a marriage.  The same goes for prayer: we’re taught to pray without ceasing,[1] to present prayers and supplications in every situation,[2] devoting ourselves to prayer.[3]

Prayer is our communication with God.

But, it’s much more than somehow passing information.

In praying, as in conversation with someone we love, we are taught to see the world as God sees it; praying is one of the ways that we are taught to love what God loves, to value what God values, and to drive away those selfish, prideful, or greedy desires that break down our relationships with God and our neighbours.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, and Jesus gave them that model prayer for all Christians – the Lord’s Prayer.

That prayer models for us what our concerns ought to be.

How does it start?

Well, most importantly, it starts with a very bold statement: “Our Father”. 

From the get-go, Christian prayer claims our relationship with God, not as a distant or disinterested ruler who must be appeased, but as a loving parent.  And, as we say those words that Jesus taught us, we must allow ourselves to hear God’s response: if he is our Father, than we are his sons and daughters, whom he loves.  And every time we call out to Our Father, he responds to us with open arms.

Then, as our Gospel today shows us, prayer focuses on God, his Kingdom, and his will for us.  Prayer, rightly understood, isn’t about us presenting God with a wish-list of what we want for our lives.  Instead, we start with praise – praise for who God is, and what he is doing in the world.

When we do bring our concerns before God, we do so as those who are learning by the grace of the Holy Spirit to see the world as God sees it.

God, we believe, shares our concern for the world around us.  He is righteous and just, and shares our hurt when people use their freedom to cause injustice or pain to others.  He is merciful and good, and promises to work all things together for good for those who love him, knowing that God’s timeline is much longer than ours, and that God sees the big picture, and the ways that what might appear to be suffering and pain today might actually be a means of grace and training for the work he has called you to do tomorrow.

When we pray for one who is sick, or lonely, or hurting, no, it’s not as though it’s news to God; but, as we communicate in our loving relationship with our Heavenly Father, it’s in interceding for those around us that we come to share the mind of God.  As we mature as Christians and learn to pray not for selfish desires but for those around us and how God can use it, we’re growing into the image of Christ, who gave up his life for the sake of the world.

And when we pray for the sick or lonely or suffering, we do so already knowing and trusting that God is in control; we pray because we, in our humanity, are unable to see God’s plan in that situation, and we pray, as Jesus prayed, that God’s will would be done, and that we would have the grace to trust in him.

That’s why we pray.

What do we pray?

But it’s also important that we learn what to pray.

Here’s where my former student, who would read the beautiful words of the prayer book, but didn’t believe the words of the prayers, really missed the boat.

We heard in the Gospel today: ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.

Ask.  Seek. Knock.  These are simple words, simple actions.

And, no matter how much we love the eloquent words of the prayer book – and I certainly do, and I believe it’s a blessing to offer the best of human poetry and art back to God – it’s important that we remember what we are praying.  After all, Jesus himself warned us not to babble on in prayer, thinking that we will be heard for our many words.

What we pray depends on how we pray.  And, as Christians, our access to God as Our Father is through our baptism in Jesus Christ; that’s why Christians pray in Jesus name.

That means, though, that we must pray those things that accord with his will.  It does us no good to attach Jesus’ name to something that our Lord would not bless.

Here’s an example: A young student asked me to pray for him because he hadn’t studied for an exam, and he really needed to do well on the exam to pass the course.  I asked him why he didn’t study, thinking there might have been some family emergency or something; turns out, his buddies were playing an online video game tournament, so he did that instead.

The bible tells us that the prayer of the righteous is effective, and that we are to ask, seek, and knock, but we can’t attach Jesus’ name to things that Jesus wouldn’t approve.

We believe in miracles, not magic.

God can intervene in the most miraculous ways to his praise and glory, but the most humble and pious of prayers won’t bless wasting your study time to play a game with your friends.

Even the most loving of parents, if it’s real love, wouldn’t bail a child out of that situation, as sometimes the most important lessons are learned through the consequences of our actions.  But, even when the answer to our prayer is “no” or “not yet”, even then, when we pray, God grants us the peace that passes all understanding to carry us through even the difficult situations, the peace that takes away our anxiety and worry and allows us to trust in him.[4] 

An Invitation

My friends in Christ,

We are called to pray without ceasing, with prayer being the way we build a loving relationship with the God who loves us so much that he would sacrifice everything to save us.

And, nothing cheers the heart of our Loving Heavenly Father like when we, those whom he loves, desire to be close to him.

Maybe you haven’t been praying much outside this hour on Sunday morning.  Maybe there was a prayer that didn’t seem to be answered that caused you to stop, or maybe you just got out of the habit.

This week, even if only for a moment before you get dressed in the morning, speak to your heavenly father.  Praise him for the new day, and the blessings of this life.  Ask and seek, not selfishly, but ask and seek those things that we can truly ask in Jesus name – for health and safety, for forgiveness, for restored relationships, for opportunities to serve.

For, as the scripture says, everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and if we are joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer, God hears us.  And even when the answer to our prayer isn’t as we would like it, if we trust him, he grants us the grace to face every day with the peace of Christ.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

For Reference: Alan Richardson and John Bowden, eds., The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), “Prayer, Theology of”.

Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (Oxford: OUP, 1980), pp. 37-44

Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven
Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God
My Faith Looks up to Thee
Now Thank we All our God

[1] 1 Thess 5:16

[2] Phil 4:6

[3] Col. 4:2

[4] Phil 4:6-7

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