Who is prayer for? Or if we’re going to be grammatically proper and stylistically sensitive, “For whom is prayer?”
I want to suggest:
- Prayer is for us.
- Prayer is for God.
- Prayer is for the world.
1. Prayer Is for Us
It’s not selfish to say that prayer is for us.
Prayer changes us and shapes us into God’s image.
When we spend time with another person, they rub off on us. This is especially true with a family member, close friend, or romantic partner. A relationship with God works this way, too. The more we spend time with God–and prayer is a way we do this–the more like God we can become.
Richard Foster says,
To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue that God uses to transform us…. In prayer we learn to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves, to do the things He wills.
Prayer centers us.
How many times have you been in the throes of indecision or stress or frustration, and realized that you hadn’t prayed about it… and you stop and pray… and even if all of life’s challenges don’t go away, you feel focused. A little bit more at peace. Re-calibrated. Prayer centers us.
Prayer is how we express our need for God, and how God responds.
To pray, then, is to build a relationship with God.
Thomas Keating, a Catholic who is perhaps best known for his work on centering prayer, puts it like this:
When we say, ‘Let us pray,’ we mean, ‘Let us enter into a relationship with God,’ or, ‘Let us deepen the relationship we have,’ or, ‘Let us exercise our relationship with God.’
Prayer is for us. It changes us and shapes us into God’s image. Prayer centers us. And prayer is the way we cultivate our relationship with God.
2. Prayer Is for God
Our praying is for God, too. Prayer is an offering we give to God. With our tithes and offerings in church we pray, “All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” This is true not just about our money but about our time, about our very selves.
To pray when we would rather be thinking about nothing, or thinking about something else, or plotting our own course by our own wits–to pray is to sacrifice. It’s to give our time to God. It is to devote our attention to God. It is to be ready for an encounter where our desires, instincts, and inclinations may be changed. To pray is to seek to grow our relationship with God.
Because of who we know God to be, we return thanks, we praise him, we glorify him, we honor him… prayer, in this sense, is for God.
3. Prayer is for the World
Finally, if prayer is for us, and if prayer is for God, then it’s also for the world.
What better way is there for us to link together the grace of God with the hurts of others? You don’t even have to ask a person’s permission to start praying for them! You can just do it.
A writer I’m quite fond of writes about it like this:
Intercessory prayer can be thought of as incarnational prayer. It saves us from the worst kind of fixation on internal states by turning us outward, and in that turn, finding ourselves turned Godward, gathering the needs and suffering of others, reconnecting them to a Divine Source. That Presence in turn catches us up in its living, out-reaching activity.
Through prayer we connect the grace of God to the needs of others.
I suspect every preacher (let alone blogger!) has a hobby horse or two. As much as we pastors try to preach the whole counsel of God, and as much as we try to offer variety… these are the things we keep repeating, knowingly and unknowingly.
For me, one of these truths worth repeating is that prayer is not something you do before you act or after you act or even as you act. To pray is to act. To pray for another is to act on that person’s behalf. To pray for justice is to work for justice. Prayer is action. It’s not the only kind of action God wants us to take… but in and of itself, it is perhaps the most important kind of action. Because in prayer we connect ourselves and our efforts to a power and a love that is far greater than anything we ourselves have to offer.
In this way, to pray is to act for the good of the world.
We pray for our own sake… we pray as homage to God… and we pray for the good of the world.
The above is adapted from the first half of a sermon I preached Sunday.