The Purpose of Prayer
Prayer fills the Bible. We read stories about it. We see examples of it. Jesus even gave his disciples a model prayer. We all know that prayer plays an important part in the Christian life. But we need to answer an important question before we can discuss the practical aspects of prayer. If we’re going to pray with the fervency and passion that we should, we first need to understand why we pray.
When I taught high-school, before getting into any particular lesson I tried to explain the purpose of the lesson. If we can see the reason we need to know something (and if we realize that it is indeed a good reason) then we’ll be much more likely to want to learn the lesson.
So what is the purpose of prayer?
Raising Our Hearts Toward God
Luis de Granada famously described prayer as “any raising of the heart to God.” If we accept this definition of prayer, a couple of things become apparent. First, prayer doesn’t have to take a specific form. It can be silent or aloud. It can be off-the-cuff or planned. Prayer isn’t about following a prescribed formula or meeting certain requirements.
It’s simply about reaching out, in faith, to a loving Father. We need to understand this before we understand anything else about prayer.
Once we really believe that prayer is raising our “heart to God”, we’ll automatically avoid a lot of prayer-pitfalls that people fall into.
For example, Jesus warned his disciples not to “be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men” (Matthew 6:5). The hypocrites Jesus was talking about didn’t truly understand the purpose of prayer. They weren’t lifting their hearts to God at all. They focused on the people around them. If they would only have understood what prayer was really all about, they could have avoided this error. Then, their prayers would have been accepted by God and they would have been transformed.
Or consider the warning in Proverbs, “He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, Even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9). In this verse, Solomon reminds us that prayer isn’t effective when we’re living in disobedience. Psalm 66:18 states something very similar, “If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear” (Psalm 66:18). Again, if I understand that prayer is about lifting my “heart to God”, then I’ll quickly realize the folly of thinking that I can pray while living in disobedience. Prayer isn’t just about lifting our voices. It’s about lifting our whole selves – our hearts.
Too often, we mistakenly think that prayer is purely about changing God’s mind. And even if we know this isn’t the case, we still pray this way.
“God, change this situation.”
“Lord, save that person.”
Prayer Changes Us
Don’t misunderstand me here. There’s nothing wrong with these kinds of prayers. In fact, this is how many of our prayers should begin. But they shouldn’t end here. Because prayer isn’t purely about God changing our situations. Prayer is about lifting our hearts up to God so that he can change our hearts.
Another example might be beneficial here. In the early chapters of Acts, the Jewish authorities arrest Peter and John and tell them not to preach in the name of Jesus anymore. After they’re released, they meet with the church and have a little prayer meeting. We might expect them to pray for less persecution or an easier culture to preach in. But they don’t. Listen to part of their prayer: “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:29-30). Rather than a request to only change their circumstances – or to change others – they ask that God would change them.
This is crucial for understanding the purpose of prayer. Our knee-jerk reaction is almost always for God to change others or our circumstances. But this is borne out of a misunderstanding of prayer. Prayer isn’t about God changing everything out there. It’s about God changing everything in here.
Following Jesus’ Example
When Jesus was facing the greatest trial of his life – the night before his crucifixion – he spent some time in prayer. His prayer that night serves as a beautiful example for all of us. In fact, in some ways, it summarizes the purpose of prayer perfectly. He said, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus’ prayer begins with a “Father, change my situation.” But he doesn’t end there like so many people do. Instead, he acknowledges the true purpose of prayer. “Not my will, but yours be done.” Even if God wouldn’t change the circumstances, he would strengthen Jesus to go through the circumstances. And according to Luke’s Gospel, that’s exactly what he did. We read, in the very next verse, that “an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him” (Luke 22:43).
Before we go any further we must stop here. We need to fully grasp the purpose of prayer. We need to see that prayer is about raising our hearts to God. It’s about being open to God’s changing power. It isn’t about deliverance from all of our trials. It’s about learning to walk through the trials, with our hands in his.
Until we see the true purpose of prayer, we will not be able to pray as we ought.
Prayer isn’t about getting something from God. It’s about getting God himself.
May we learn to pray with prayer’s true purpose in mind.
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