Why Do Christians Pray?
First, let’s clear the clutter by throwing away some possible, but incorrect, ineffectual motives for Christian prayer. We do not pray in order to appease God because God is angry at us. God is, in fact, too powerful for us to appease—or to make angry.
We do not pray in order to win points with God or to earn his forgiveness or his mercy or his good favor. God doesn’t keep score.
We do not pray in order to bargain with God, for ourselves or for others. God knows exactly what his next move will be, all the time.
We do not pray in order to convince God to do what we want him to do or to give us what we want from him. God’s ways are not our ways. God knows what he’s doing, without our advice.
These motives for prayer are all centered in the human self. They are all attempts to get something for ourselves.
Christian prayer is never about the one who is praying. It’s never about self-benefit, however we disguise this. So, then, why do Christians pray?
Jesus gave us two commands as the pillars of our lives: Love God, and Love one another. The second command means to love everyone, even our enemies and our persecutors. The purpose of these two commands is to provide the foundation for achieving the Divine Plan for Creation. The Divine Plan for Creation is that at the end of time, all people will be living in a community of justice and peace, according to these two principles—Jesus’ Two Great Commandments.
What stands in the way of our living according to these principles are natural self-concern, self-absorption, and self-seeking. We naturally focus our attention and our efforts on ourselves and on those we care about in our surroundings.
The way of Jesus means putting ourselves last, minimizing ourselves, denying ourselves, and attending exclusively to God and our place in him, and to the just needs of those around us.
Now we get to the point. Prayer aims us in the direction of the Two Great Commandments. When we are in prayer and we find a sweet satisfaction in attending exclusively to our place in God—that is, when we “pray to” God—when we “lift up our hearts to God,” we are fulfilling the first command of Jesus. We give ourselves over to God. We acknowledge and experience our nothingness and God’s everythingness.
And when we pray for others—especially when we pray in groups for others—our attention is turned toward the needs of these others. Thus, the second command of Jesus is fulfilled. We attend to the benefit of others in the context of God’s love for them and for us. Simultaneously, we recognize our incapacity to address the needs of these persons, and experience our own helplessness as well as God’s continual pouring out of blessings and goodness.
When we pray for others, even when we are unable to meet their needs, we foster the community of human dignity that Jesus came to lead us to, because we turn our attention away from our own benefit and toward the righteous service of the needs of others, which is compliant with the second of Jesus’ commands. Often enough, this service consists simply in sharing their pain and sorrow, bearing their grief with them, sustaining them with comfort and consolation, creating for them a healing context of love.
So, the benefit of prayer is that it diverts us from selfishness and turns us over to living out the life Jesus offers us.
When we do this, we are bringing about in some small way the achievement of the Divine Plan for Creation.
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