What is the role of prayer in the life of the Christian?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
Prayer is one of the means of grace previously noted. Prayer encompasses all the ways the believer—individually and as part of the assembled church—speaks to God, including petition, praise, lament, intercession, and so forth. Since prayer is such a central part of Christian life and faith, a number of special questions arise related to prayer which deserve special attention. For instance, if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good (essential attributes of God), then why does he not simply act on behalf the lost or needy without the role of prayer? More to the point, why do we ask for things or tell God about things which he, quite obviously, already knows because he is God? If we need direction or healing or help or salvation, why does God not simply grant it for ourselves or others? If God has the power to help someone and does not do it, is he, therefore, culpable for the suffering or lostness or confusion which results because God failed to act? All of these questions, and many more, intersect at the point of prayer. Put simply, why do we pray and what role does prayer play in the larger work of God in the world?
Fundamental to our understanding of creation is that God did not desire to merely create an army of living machines who simply obey him and do his will. Throughout this study we have seen how God desires to include us in his work and, amazingly, to make us full participants in the unfolding of his salvation to the world. We have seen how Scripture itself comes to us in a collaborative way. We have ample testimony all around us which demonstrates how God uses people to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, to care for the environment, and to serve the poor, to name but a few. All of these things could be done by God directly, and with more efficiency, if he were to simply act autonomously. There is no outcome which is not attainable through the exercise of his sovereign power and dominion. Every broken heart could be healed, every toxic river could be cleansed, every rebellious heart could be turned, and every diseased body could be healed—all by his spoken word.
However, we have also seen that God’s plan is much bigger than simply the meeting of certain final outcomes or objectives. God is not interested in merely reaching a final outcome; rather, he works throughout the whole process of how we get there. He has determined that there is greater glory by working in us and through us and, indeed, in making us fellow participants in his redemptive work. Earlier we noted that no proper Christian action begins with us. We are always responding to God’s prior initiative. This is true even of prayer. It is only because God has revealed his desire for justice that we pray for justice. It is only because God has already revealed his heart for the lost that we pray for the lost, and so forth. So, rather than seeing prayer as a human initiative which is trying to get an otherwise passive God to act in some way, we should see prayer as the means through which our own lives and wills are brought into concert with his divine will. We have the amazing privilege of witnessing God changing situations or people’s hearts in response to prayer. Prayer really does change the course of the world. As Alfred Lord Tennyson once commented, “more things are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreamed of!” God has chosen to act in certain situations in direct response to the prayers of his people.
It is important to note, however, that God does not only call us to the life of prayer to participate in his work and to witness real transformations such as the healing of bodies, the reconciling of relationships, the salvation of the lost, and so forth. He also calls us to pray so that we, too, can be changed and so that our hearts may become more aligned with his heart. As we pray for the lost we begin to share in God’s burden for the lost which was so great that he sent his only Son to die on a cross. As we pray for the needs of a poor family in our neighborhood, we begin to take their burdens into our own hearts and respond to their needs with the compassion of Christ which has been formed within us. So, prayer is not just for the outcome of changing this or that situation (though it is never less than that), but it is also part of God’s work in changing us. We participate in his redemptive work by acting as his ambassadors in the world. We become participators in the extension of his grace and his mercy. All of this and more is wrought through prayer.
What may seem like unanswered prayer is often nothing more than God, in his wisdom, granting the time for other deeper realities to be worked in us and in the person for whom we are praying. It is also true that sometimes we pray for the wrong things because our own perspective is warped in some way. A wise person once said that when we conclude our prayer with the phrase, “In Jesus’ Name,” we are giving God editing rights on our prayers. Sometimes we pray for certain perceived outcomes which we believe would be right, good, or desirable, but God knows that our deepest need may be, in fact, precisely the opposite of our verbalized prayer. Finally, it is important to remember that some prayers are only fully answered in the resurrection at the end of time, when God will make all things right and wipe every tear away from our eyes.
I Kings 8:22–54
1 Thessalonians 1:2
1 Timothy 2:1