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Decoding the Bible

What is the point of prayer?

By Peter Wyatt

Despite fitful intentions to do better, prayer life for most of us is a ragged affair. Usually we fall to prayer when someone we love is at the brink or we face upheaval in our own lives. In such moments, we do not ask probing questions about the proper uses of prayer or its efficacy. We just pray.

Once out of the crucible, though, we may question our use of prayer. Do we expect God to intervene, bringing about a different outcome than otherwise would be possible — so rain would fall in a time of drought, a friend’s body would be cleansed of cancer or peace would break out in Israel/Palestine? Would such expectation imply belief in an “interventionist God” — a God who can be persuaded by our impassioned pleas to overrule the laws of nature or change the course of history?

Before coming to grips with this question, we need to recognize that there are several kinds of prayer. The interventionist question relates to two: prayers of intercession (praying for others) and of petition (praying for ourselves). The other types are invocation (calling on God to be vitally present), adoration (acknowledging and praising the greatness and goodness of God), confession (of sin) and thanksgiving. The acronym ACTIP keeps in view a healthy diet and good order for prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Intercession, Petition.

Prayer is much more than asking God to alter life’s circumstances. It is a way of drawing near to the God who is always near to us. It is conversation with the divine Friend. Our forebears in faith regarded it as a means of grace, a way for beloved children to experience God’s parental presence, guidance and care. John Calvin, for example, maintained, “Prayer is the chief exercise of faith.”

Prayer is more than speaking to God. “Be still and know that I am God” is a command (and invitation) to wait in reflection and contemplation for God to speak to us. An individual’s prayer life need not be a one-sided conversation. Nor should it be in our church services where the wordiness of much public prayer inhibits its purpose: communion with God.

Yes, that’s it. The point of prayer is communion with God. Whereas Holy Communion is the intimate encounter with God in Christ through the tangible signs of broken bread and poured cup, the life of prayer is the ordinary means of seeking this intimacy. Intimacy requires transparency, and with transparency comes the freedom to recognize and offer ourselves as we really are. As Huck Finn discovered, “You can’t pray a lie.” Or as hymnwriter James Montgomery put it, “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire.” To seek intimacy with God is also to discover intimacy with one’s own soul.

So, is it responsible to ask God in prayer for what we, our loved ones, the church and the world may need? Of course it is. In Philippians 4, Paul says, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And Jesus, in teaching us how to pray, gave us a model that is full of petition: “Give us this day our daily bread,” “Save us from the time of trial” and “Deliver us from evil.”

These petitions are anything but self-indulgent. They are requests for the basic requirements of life and could be uttered by subsistence farmers or refugees in a war zone. And notice that the sequence of petitions in the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Your kingdom come; your will be done.” Thus, the point of prayer is also to help us focus on God’s will and not our own. Prayer is not for God’s instruction, but for ours. It is meant to open our hearts to what God wants for the world, the church and our personal lives.

Suppose, then, that God’s involvement with the world and the divine responsiveness to our prayers are not matters of occasional, dramatic intervention. Suppose rather that they are ongoing interactions aimed at bringing about healing and transformation. Our prayers of petition and intercession thus give us an intentional way to connect with the redeeming purpose of divine love in the world.

There remains, of course, irreducible mystery about how our prayers function to serve God’s work of mending the world and the lives of individuals. Yet we believe that God will use all that believers dare to offer — whether in work or in prayer — to make a difference in the world. As St. Francis prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”

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