What’s your most intimate relationship? Why do you think that relationship is so intimate? Most likely it’s because you regularly communicate with that person on a deep, meaningful level.
As with all relationships, communication is vital to sustaining a bond of trust and affection. The same can be said for the Christian’s relationship with God. Constant communication with God is necessary in order to know him better.
One way we communicate with God is through his Word, the Bible. God speaks to us through his Word; we simply receive. We listen to what he has said about us, about himself, and about how to live and think.
Every Christian has the God-given opportunity to speak to him. We call this privilege, prayer. God has invited us to speak to him, and as we speak to God, he transforms our character.
Talking to God is so important that some Christian scholars have called prayer the “lifeblood” of the Christian faith.
The Crisis that Keeps Us from Praying
What does the Bible say about prayer? We know that prayer is how we communicate with God. We also know that throughout the Bible, God commands us to pray (1 Timothy 2:1-4; Romans 15:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18; Mark 14:38).
But God also tells us in the Bible that he has already made his plans.
Here, many people run into a crisis that keeps them from praying. They ask, “How do we fit together what the Bible says about God and the Bible’s instruction to pray?”
We will answer this question in three articles. To be clear, we won’t go through the practical details of how to pray, or when, or for what. Rather, we will be concerned with a theology of prayer: What is the purpose and point of prayer according to the Bible?
In this first article, we will talk about two mistakes we can make when we try to understand how God’s plans and our prayers fit together.
The first mistake is to say that we should pray in order to change God’s plans or to manipulate him.
The second mistake is to say that we should disobey God’s command to pray and not communicate with him since he’s already established his plans.
What God tells us in the Bible about his unchanging plans and character, plus the command to pray, leaves us with the question: Why do we pray?
Why Do We Pray if God Already Has a Plan?
As we consider the purpose of prayer, we immediately come upon a problem. The Bible teaches that God is both omniscient (he knows everything) and immutable (he is unchanging). Here are two passages that confirm this:
- If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:20 NIV)
- He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind. (1 Samuel 15:29 NIV)
If God knows everything so that nothing we tell him is new, and he also doesn’t change his mind, why do we pray? What does prayer do?
Mistake #1: We Pray to Change God’s Mind
Many people think that we pray so that God must give us what we want. This is usually accompanied by fervent, passionate arm-twisting as we try to convince God that what we desire is important.
Unfortunately, those who believe that we just pray to get what we want to reduce God to nothing more than a cosmic slot machine. If we pull on his arm long and hard enough, we’ll eventually hit the jackpot.
Jesus warns his disciples against this approach to prayer when he says, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8 NIV). As we can see, Jesus roots his approach to prayer in his Father’s nature.
God’s “understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5 NASB). Prayer isn’t an exercise in telling him something he doesn’t already know. Prayer doesn’t inform God.
Because God is unchanging in his nature, plans, and purposes (Numbers 23:19), prayer also can’t be a strategic attempt to change his mind. Prayer doesn’t provide God with the information he needs to adjust his perfect plans—and it does not obligate him to adopt our plans.
Mistake #2: We Neglect to Pray Because God’s Mind Is Made Up
On the other hand, if God is all-knowing and unchanging, some Christians see no reason for prayer. God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11 NIV), after all, so prayer feels pointless. God is going to get his way; no one can thwart his plans (Job 42:2).
As you can see, these two attitudes towards prayer are opposites. On the one side, people think they must wear God down until they get what they want, while on the other side, people see no point in prayer because God will simply do what God wants to do, regardless of our desires.
The problem with both approaches is they misunderstand the purpose of prayer. They see prayer only as asking God for stuff. But the answer to “why do we pray” is not “to get what we want from God.”
Two Biblical Truths We Must Keep in Mind
Both these wrong attitudes towards prayer suffer from a faulty view of God. They see our relationship with God as merely transactional, not relational. And if relational, they don’t see our relationship with God in a way that’s true to who he says he is in the Bible.
According to these attitudes, God either seems like an indulgent heavenly Father at the mercy of his child’s every whim, or a stern, unmoving Lord who doesn’t care about his children’s desires.
There is some truth, however, underlying both mistakes. That’s why they’re appealing perspectives, and why many people neglect prayer, or pray fervently only to be disappointed. What is correct about these views is:
- Humans have a responsibility to pray
- God is all-knowing and unchanging
As we continue to construct a theology of prayer, we need to keep these two truths in mind.
But we’re still left with the question, why do we pray? Check out the next article to find out.