Why Do We Pray
Have you ever asked yourself this question? We all know that we should pray, and probably that we should pray more. But why do we pray? I would like to consider this question as we examine some key prayers in the Bible, the prayers of Jesus.
An initial thought about the question in the title might be that we pray in order to let God know our troubles so He can help us. But even a quick consideration of Jesus’ prayers forces us to rethink that idea.
…it is not wrong to spell out our requests to God, but just as clearly we need to grow in our understanding of prayer.Starting with the end of the story, consider Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus asked his father to allow him to avoid the ordeal of the cross. We know that Jesus was willing to accept God’s will over his own, and we know that it was not God’s will to grant this particular request. Whatever else we take from this narrative, it clearly shows us that there must be more to why we pray than simply telling God our problems so He can solve them.
Upon reflection, we can see that there could actually be a danger in thinking that prayer is only about what we want God to do. Whatever “it” is, if God doesn’t do it, our faith will suffer. Obviously it is not wrong to spell out our requests to God, but just as clearly we need to grow in our understanding of prayer.
So let’s take a deeper look at the prayers of Jesus to learn a little more about why we pray.
I counted 16 different recorded prayers of Jesus, in 26 different gospel passages. I divided them into four broad categories: prayers for himself, prayers for food, prayers for other people, and prayers with no specific subject recorded.
Prayers for Oneself. It is perhaps fitting that passages where Jesus prays for himself make up the smallest of the four groups. In fact, apart from the prayers recorded in the garden of Gethsemane, we have no record of Jesus praying specifically for his own needs. It seems fair to assume that Jesus was praying about his own questions and struggles in some of the passages that have no recorded subject, but it is still interesting that this category of prayers in the gospels is the least represented.
Prayers for Food. Moving on to the next category, you might be surprised to find that Jesus is specifically recorded as praying for food in seven different gospel passages. These record three separate occasions: the feeding of the 5000, the feeding of the 4000, and the Last Supper. While it is no surprise that Jesus would pray for these meals – or any meals – it is interesting that the gospel writers so consistently note Jesus’ prayers for food.
For many of us, prayers for our food are part of our daily routine. This can be a positive thing, if our meal prayers cause us to truly pause and reflect on God’s blessings in the midst of our hectic lives. But anything that becomes such a strong habit also carries the danger of becoming mindless or routine. How many of us find ourselves giving (or hearing!) the same repetitive prayers meal after meal?
That can certainly be our experience here in the developed world, and I have to admit that the first time I gave this talk I skimmed over Jesus’ food-related prayers as something almost like throwaway lines. But then my sister took these notes with her to share on a trip to Kenya. Suddenly, the idea of Jesus’ friends taking the time to record how many times he prayed for food seemed much more meaningful. We would all do well to remember how many of our brothers and sisters cannot afford to take for granted the blessing of regular meals.
Prayers for other people. The next category of prayers recorded in the gospels are Jesus’ prayers for other people. An example of this is in John 11:41-43, when Jesus prayed for Lazarus. Looking at the question of whether prayer requests were answered, this prayer was actually answered twice! First a voice from heaven responded to Jesus’ words, then God responded in action by raising Lazarus from the dead. It is also useful to note that Jesus stated a specific purpose for his request here, namely that God would be glorified.
Another example of Jesus praying for other people is in Luke 22:31-32, when Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. Again, we see that God did answer this prayer: although Peter later denied Jesus, in the end his faith held strong enough for him to repent and return. And similar to what we saw in the prayer for Lazarus, Jesus mentions a purpose for his request, namely that Peter would be in a position to strengthen others.
Altogether, Jesus is recorded as praying for others on five occasions, in six separate accounts. Besides Peter and Lazarus, Jesus also prayed for children (recorded twice), and on two separate occasions prayed for his disciples. Like our own prayers, some of these were specific requests that God explicitly answered, while others were more general appeals.
We will return later to Jesus’ great prayer for his disciples in John 17, but first it is enlightening to look at the final category of Jesus’ prayers.
Simply Praying. The vast majority of time Jesus is recorded as praying to his father, there is no specific subject or outcome. Jesus is simply praying. On a few occasions, it is possible to deduce the topic of Jesus’ prayers from related events in his life. In Luke 6:12-13, for example, Jesus prayed all night before choosing the 12 apostles. Very likely this was the topic of his prayer. Did God answer this prayer? Well, He did not choose the disciples and present them to Jesus. Instead, Jesus prayed – a lot – and then acted. God’s answer seems to have been a general blessing on the process.
Another instance when we can make a fair guess about why Jesus prayed is in Matt 14:22-23. In this passage, Jesus had just fed the 5000, and the people wanted to make him king. While there is no specific record of what Jesus was praying about when he sent the disciples away to pray on the mountain, it seems reasonable to assume that he wanted to go over the events of that memorable day with his father.
Many times, however, there is no specific subject or purpose recorded for Jesus’ prayers. Luke alone mentions that Jesus was praying at his baptism, (Luke 3:21-22), but doesn’t record what he was praying about. In fact, Luke frequently presents Jesus as praying, such as directly before Peter’s great confession of Jesus’ identity in Luke 9:18-21. Again at the transfiguration, it is Luke that records that Jesus took the disciples up to a mountain to pray, and that he was praying when Moses and Elijah appeared (Luke 9:28-30). Like the other passages, we don’t know the specific words Jesus prayed, or even any specific topic. It was just the case that Jesus happened to be praying when these important events occurred, as if any spare moment was spent in prayer.
Stop and think about that for a minute. Whenever he could, Jesus chose contact with his father. It seems that prayer, for our Lord, was more about the communication itself than the topic. With our own close friends, we sometimes feel that we don’t mind what we talk about, we are just glad to talk to them. Is it strange that Jesus felt that way about his father?
It can be unnatural for us to think of our relationship with God that way. But it is similar to what early Christians described as “practicing” the presence of God, training ourselves to remember God is there by talking to Him. Imagine if, in our own lives, whenever something important happened to us, it caught us praying?!
Jesus’ prayers usually did ask for things, for himself and others.Space stops us talking in detail about the great priestly prayer of John 17, but examining it tells us something about Jesus’ prayer style. While it includes making requests, he also wants to talk to God about why he is praying. It might seem unnecessary to tell God about what happened, since of course He already knows. But it does seem, once again, like the kind of conversational style we might have with our human friends, telling them about the events of our lives and our own reactions to them.
All this feeds into our original question, why do we pray?
We started with Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane, noticing that prayer cannot be simply about telling God what we want so He can do it. Yet Jesus’ prayers usually did ask for things, for himself and others. This tells us not that our requests are bad, but that they are only part of what prayer is about.
When our Lord prayed, he spoke with God about what had already happened, and why, and who he was praying about, and what he and his father already knew about them, and what he hoped would happen, and why, and more and more. All this was a lot to talk about. Thus Jesus was talking to his father at every available opportunity. The conversation was always going. Then, whether the specific requests were granted or not, Jesus’ relationship with his father grew. And when he realized that his prayers would not – could not – be answered, he could still pray, “Thy will be done.”
Jesus’ prayers, as recorded in the gospels, give us insightful models for our own prayer life. We can fearlessly bring our requests to God, as our Lord did, whether they are for ourselves or for others. Not only that, we can take the time to think about why we are asking, and share our reasons with God as part of our prayers. We can look for answers to our prayers, both in specific outcomes God brings, and in the knowledge that He can bless the process. We can challenge ourselves to use our mealtime prayers as points of connection with our Father, not simply rote repeated words. We can seek out opportunities to remember God’s presence in brief, interrupted prayers throughout the day. And, when our ongoing conversations are interrupted by things that are painful, when the answer to our prayers is “no”, our relationship with our Father can still grow. We can still pray for God’s will to be done.
May we, like our Lord, become people of this kind of prayer.