Why Pray?

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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7428

Thank you Jason for this. I wonder what you think about the relation of Open Theism to prayer? If God cannot know with absolute certainty what we will choose, only that we will choose one of our many alternatives, each of which he is fully prepared to relate to as the need arises, why wouldn’t our confessing what we are thinking about and feeling not be helpful even to divine wisdom as we relate to God? Just wondering.

Prayer is a powerful tool which can influence matters we all confront in life, but the entire mechanism is not fully known. Even atheists ,such as the Chinese’ have been known to use prayer-like mechanisms to achieve seemingly miraculous outcomes… notably outlined in the book THE POLITICS, SCIENCE, AND MYSTERIES OF CREATION (Amazon) page 156 under the heading “Chinese Scientists practice bloodless surgery”. In this case the healers got rid of a huge bladder cancer tumour of about three inches in diameter in 2 minutes and forty seconds, before an audience gathered at the Huaxia Zhening Qigong Clinic and Training Center. A nurse holding an ultrasound device showed the audience the reduction of the tumour as the healers confidently and feelingly proclaimed “already gone” , “already accomplished” and so onto the patient , until the entire mass disappeared without a scar. The patient was awake the whole time , and the audience in Bejing including Westerners, broke out in standing spontaneous applause at the end. So, is there a science and technology of prayer? The old Essenes apparently believed that to manifest a given result there must be visualization,desire, and focus. There must be Thought , Emotion, and feeling. Thought is associated with directed imagination, but needs the energy of directed emotion to manifest the desired result. Feeling is defined as the resultant of a union of Thought and Emotion, and operates as the certainty, that is the FAITH that the deed has already been done. If this is so , it suggests that God has granted mankind the immanent gift of his being able to amplify his mental God-given resources to secure beneficial outcomes , even if they do not explicitly acknowledge his supremacy. God does not exhibit a fetish for prostration and worship. Worship is to strengthen faith in humans. If prayers are , however,used for evil outcomes practitioners will no doubt face the wrath of God, at some point. I believe this is the worst fate which can befall humans.

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Different parts of our brain produce different experiences that affect how we perceive and think about God. At best, we need the right balance of frontal lobe and limbic activity to experience a positive and meaningful experience of God. This is one reason why each person’s experience of God is unique. Our frontal lobes provide us with an image of a rational and loving God while the limbic system creates an emotionally positive or negative meaningful experience of God. An overactive limbic system could cause a person to ruminate and obsess about religious matters such as the concept of “original sin” or “Investigative Judgement” whereas an overly active frontal lobe could cause a person to obsess in proving the mathematical existence of God. Lowering parietal activity allows an individual to diminish the boundaries between God and himself giving him a sense of unity with the object of his contemplation, whether it be with God, the universe or peacefulness. Stimulation of the anterior cingulate suppresses amygdala activity which in turn decreases religious anxiety, guilt and fear. Bible stories deepen a child’s fantasy of God but rituals give personal meanings to theological ideas. Prayers and meditations, aside from some illicit drugs, have been known to stimulate these parts of the brain. Thus our experiences…

On the other side of the spectrum, brain scans of atheists show less activity in both frontal lobes and limbic system when contemplating about God. Thus their experiences…

I’m just describing His creative works. We see this in neurology and psychiatry clinics. For further reading, check this book at Amazon:

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The most powerful essay on prayer is found in the chapter on prayer in Steps to Christ. While I have questions about the hypothesis of the book, I enjoy the chapter on prayer. TZ

Our frontal lobes provide us with an image of a rational and loving God while the limbic system creates an emotionally positive or negative meaningful experience of God. An overactive limbic system could cause a person to ruminate and obsess about religious matters such as the concept of “original sin” or “Investigative Judgement” whereas an overly active frontal lobe could cause a person to obsess in proving the mathematical existence of God. Lowering parietal activity allows an individual to diminish the boundaries between God and himself giving him a sense of unity with the object of his contemplation, whether it be with God, the universe or peacefulness.

I sure hope God is aware of these findings, Elmer, and He takes it into account during the IJ. :slight_smile:

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In the Christian mystic tradition the purpose of prayer is to train the individual to come to the place where the “consciousness” of being with God eventually transcends into being “unconsciousness” with God. Which means that “conversations” where one actually “talks” with God comes to the place where there is more and more awareness that God always exists and words may have little or no meaning.

Teaching prayer in regards to “God being a friend” is certainly more progressive than teaching that prayer is for a “vengeful” God. However, it is just one step of many to reach the point of “immersion” in prayer. It is difficult to explain when Adventism does not have a tradition of spiritual formation.

I agree that “prayer has very little to do with God or anyone else and everything to do with you.” It is one person’s experience with God…because no one has exactly the same spiritual experience.

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i can’t imagine living without praying…as a single person, i’d probably feel lonely if i didn’t always pray…i disagree that the purpose of prayer isn’t to get stuff, or share with god, or tell god things…it seems to me that while the point of prayer is to exercise faith, getting stuff, and telling god things he already knew billions of yrs ago, is part of that exercise of faith…

one thing i do think is that there’s little point in a formal prayer that’s spoken out loud and ends in an amen, when you’re just by yourself…i also don’t see the point of always being on your knees…most of my prayers are snippets of specific thoughts and feelings that have no beginning or ending, and that occur only in my mind when i’m on the run, or in the middle of something else…but i’ve had striking evidence that god registers these types of prayers…to me, this is the best thing about prayer…if i can think something, or even sense or feel it, at any time, and in any circumstance, i feel confident that god registers it…i think god operates in a dimension of omniscience and omnipresence that we just don’t have the capacity to imagine…i think he’s intimately involved in every aspect of all life and non-life at the same time…i see no point in not praying…there’s nothing kept from god by not opening it up to him, so we might as well open everything to him and have our faith strengthened…

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Jason Hines in this excellent article said;
“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.”
The Williams brothers sand a country song that says it all for me:
Prayer Made the Difference
by The Williams Brothers
Verse 1:
Many times in my life
I’ve come through the storms and rain
And time after time in my life
I’ve overcome heartaches and pain
But I always kept faith in God
Cause I knew somehow he’d make a way
Kept trusting Kept believing
And always pray

Cause see through pray God’s strength in me and made me strong
Pray gave me courage to keep on keeping on
Prayer

Chorus:
Prayer made the difference (2x’s)
For if it comes through my pray I declare
Prayer changes things

Verse 2:
Prays been a shoulder to lean on
And prays has been a comforter when it seemed like hope was gone
Its been my rock my salvation
And prays has been my shield
And if it’s god’s will ain’t no wounds that pray can’t heal

http://www.lyrics.com/prayer-made-the-difference-lyrics-the-williams-brothers.html#VAfWahcDXMBs7T1u.99

One of the VERY FIRST things that happens when one walks into the Rooms of Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotic Anonymous is this:
Connect with your Higher Power.

  1. Admit one is powerless, life is unmanageable. 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. 3. Made a DECISION to turn my Will and my Life over to the care of God as I can understand Him. 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. 5 Admit to God, myself, another human being the exact nature of my wrongs. 6. Were entirely READY to have God remove all of these defects of character [NOTE-- the emphasis is on GOD]. 7, Humbly asked GOD to remove my shortcomings. 8.[Part of that is] Made a list of all persons I had harmed, and BECAME willing to make amends to them all. 9. [Continue with #8] Made amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. 10.Continued to take personal inventory and when I was wrong promptly admit it. 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God, As I Understand God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry it out. 12. Having had a Spiritual Awakening as a result of these 11 steps, I try to carry this message to others, and to practice these principals in all of my affairs.

I believe these 12 statements sum up the reason for Why We Pray. We pray for God to Change us. To see who we are. To see what we want to become, and ask God to change us into that “Become”.
Do we have to know everything about God? No. It is evident by the Millions of transformed persons that the Higher Power works in people’s lives.
Perhaps as SDAs we make Prayer and contact with OUR Higher Power too difficult, too complicated.