Why should I pray. God knows and God is sovereign. Why bother?
In his most famous work – Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin says that prayer is “the chief exercise of faith”. And, although there are many true statements we could make to describe prayer, it is this particular definition of prayer that will be particularly useful in thinking through our question.
I think there are two things that we can draw out of Calvin’s description of prayer. Firstly, that, for the Christian prayer is instinctive. Secondly, that prayer is relational. So, let’s take a look at what those things actually mean!
Prayer is Instinctive
Before a baby is born, it doesn’t breath through its lungs. It takes in oxygen from its mother’s blood as it is passed through the placenta and umbilical cord. But, as soon as the baby is born, an instantaneous change happens, and it begins to live in a new way. The baby gasps for air, and takes in oxygen through its lungs for the first time. As long as a human continues to breath, we can be sure that he is alive.
In the same way that breathing is the first sign of life in a new-born baby, so prayer, according to Calvin, is the first and most vital sign of faith in a newly born (again) Christian. For the Christian, prayer should be as instinctive as breathing. And it’s this instinctive characteristic of prayer that I think is what Calvin means by “chief exercise”. This is why it’s important for the Christian to assess his prayer life. Just as a lack of breathing is a sign of a lack of life, so a lack of prayer could well be a sign of a lack of spiritual life. A good way to improve physical health is to exercise. The best way to improve spiritual health is to pray!
Prayer is Relational
My dear wife knows that I love her. And I know that she knows that I love her. But I still tell her. I tell her all the time. Sometimes when I tell her I love her, she responds with “I know!” It doesn’t matter that she knows I love her, because it’s something I want to do. I want to tell her. I enjoy it. It’s my delight to affirm my affection for her. My romantic declarations are as much for my benefit as hers. What this means in relation to prayer is that a Christian doesn’t really care that God already knows what will be said in prayer. In fact, having spent time thinking about this question, I feel an increased desire to speak to an all knowing God. The fact that he knows what I’m going to say, in a way, makes me want to pray more, because it makes Him more awesome to me. Who wouldn’t want a conversation with the omniscient?! Do you see? A Christian’s desire to pray is based first and foremost on who God is, not what God can do for him. He wishes to speak with God because he loves Him, trusts Him and enjoys Him and is interested in Him. The fact that God already knows the content of the conversation is almost arbitrary. His omniscience will never serve to hinder prayer, rather, it will probably help to inspire it. If I just stopped telling her I loved her completely, it might be a sign that I have stopped loving her. If a Christian stops praying, it might be a sign that he no longer (or never did) loves God. It might be a sign of a lack of relationship with Him. A good way to start a relationship, though, is to get to know someone, and prayer is an essential part of starting a relationship with God, as well as maintaining it.
Prayer has Purpose
After these first two points, it might seem like I’m just writing the question off as a no-question. It isn’t entirely invalid, though. After considering the first part of my answer, the question may well be followed up with a query about the validity of relationship itself. If God knows all, including the content of our prayers, then they are not really an expression of having a relationship with him, because either he can’t or won’t change his mind in response to them. If God knows the full course of history, then he can’t possibly answer prayer that isn’t in accordance with his design for the future, so what’s the point?
This, however, draws us to one of the deep and beautiful truths about prayer. God wraps up his plan for the world in the prayers of the saints. As he saves people, and as they learn to love him, they start to pray in accordance with His will and plan, as He reveals it. And this means that as we pray God can and will and does act.
A quick survey of some passages in the Bible reveal how this is true.
Exodus 32:7-14, Matthew 7:7-11, John 14:13-14 & James 5:13-18. If you wish to read these short passages, you’ll find that they all have one thing in common. They tell of instances when God has answered the prayers of His people; of instances when God has acted in response to those prayers, and as His people pray, His will is done, His plan is revealed, and history is defined!
Why bother praying? Well, if we are a Christian, we pray because we want to, because God is delightful to us. It’s a sign of faith in Jesus which is life for us. We pray also because God does answer.
(Written by Stuart Holloway)
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