Every now and again I become fascinated with what feel to me to be the elements of religious experience that are taken for granted. When these moods come, I try to get to the bottom of why religious experience (and I guess particularly of the Adventist variety) expresses itself in the way that it does. In short – I ask “Why?” a lot. I have gone through these thought experiments in this space before (Here are afew examples), and maybe it is my experience as a young father that has, in a roundabout way, led me to the question, “Why do we pray?”
I think many Christian communities promote misconceptions about exactly why we should pray. Because of this, some of us believe that we pray so that we can get stuff from God. The popularity of what has become known as prosperity gospel leads to some Christians upholding something like the prayer of Jabez as proof that prayer is the way to get things from God. And it is true that you will receive things from God when you pray. Jesus prayed and raised Lazarus from the dead. Hannah successfully prayed for a son. Hezekiah extended his life by praying for healing. The fact that you receive things, however, is not the reason why you pray. After all, the Bible makes it clear that God does not need your prayer to know what you need. That’s why Jesus said in Matt 6:7-8, “An when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (italics added)
Furthermore, if prayer is about receiving things, it leads to a logical conundrum. What do we do when we don’t get what we want from God? What happens when we end up, like Paul, praying for a deliverance that never comes? I think that because we are socialized to believe that prayer is about asking God for things, our disappointment leads us away from talking to God. Like spoiled children we believe that God owes us what we want because we are His children who are trying to do what He tells us. But we don’t pray in order to get things. That is not what prayer is for.
Another slight misconception about prayer is that talking to God is about treating God as our friend. Because God is our friend, and we are to have a relationship with Him, we spend our time in prayer telling him about our day, sharing our thoughts with him, and making requests – just like we would with our human friends. Once again, it isn’t that this shouldn’t be done in prayer. When I pray I talk to God about things and thank Him and make requests just like anyone else. However, it is not the essence of what prayer is for. After all, I serve a God that I believe to be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. If that is true, then God does not need my prayers in order to inform Him of what I did on any particular day. He already knows.
At its base, prayer has very little to do with God or anyone else and everything to do with you. The goal of prayer is not to get stuff (because God is still sovereign even if I don’t get what I want). And the goal of prayer cannot be to share with God (because I’m not really informing God of anything anyway). The goal of prayer certainly cannot be to use the mention of prayer as a tool to correct others. I think we forget sometimes that at its essence prayer is an exercise of faith. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” Prayer is a person’s way of saying to God that they believe in Him. It is our most consistent way of reinforcing that idea for ourselves. Therefore the goal of prayer, in my humble opinion, is continuing to keep the prayer’s faith strong more than anything else. As such, prayer is one of the most important things we do in the Christian experience because it keeps us close to Christ who is the author and finisher of our faith, the Being through whom prayer has a purpose.
Jason Hines is an attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
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