The Purpose of Prayer: Secular Misconceptions and the Reality of Grace

Dictionary.com, barred entry to the biblical canon for good reason, defines prayer as “a devout petition to God or an object of worship.” Unfortunately, popular culture picked up on this borderline apocryphal rumor, which has spread like wildfire in much the way inaccurate information usually does: casual usage, word of mouth, and of course, Facebook. A quick scroll through your News Feed will confirm this, with status upon status asking for prayer while waiting to hear back from college scholarships or hoping for an injury’s healing before the big game. Christians are not above the fray when it comes to perpetuating this myth either. Oftentimes Christians feel that the best encouragement they can offer their non-religious friends is an “I’ll pray for you” and a King Arthur Flour cupcake. But when these friends do not get their desired outcome, they would naturally doubt the efficacy of Christian prayer.

This modern understanding of prayer is superficial and misleading. In order to have a biblical and holistic conception of prayer, one needs to go back to Christ himself. When Christ said, “Ask, and ye shall receive,” it was not as straightforward a statement as the dictionary perceives it to be.[i] Rather, Christ had a specific genre of requests in mind and pointedly did not offer a timeline on when the “receiving” would occur, nor did he offer a lot of detailed information on what one might actually receive. The Bible demonstrates again and again that Jesus wants man’s varied requests to have the same core desire at their center: a relationship with God.

When Jesus famously said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find,” it was not necessarily a blanket statement.[ii] He continues in the next verse to ask “who among you” would give a snake to a son who asks for bread.[iii] When analyzing these verses, it is necessary to be familiar with a bit of biblical symbolism. Bread is often synonymous to Jesus himself. In John, Jesus claims that “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”[iv] This is an allusion to his forty-day fast in the desert. When Satan tempted him with bread, Jesus responded by alluding to Deuteronomy 8:3 – “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[v] So when Jesus calls himself the “living bread,” he is stating that he is the Word of the Lord made flesh.

Furthermore, snakes represent Satan, who himself represents a separation from God. In the Garden of Eden, it was the serpent (universally acknowledged to be Satan in disguise) who lured Adam and Eve into sin and thus out of the Garden.[vi] While the Garden was a paradise in the secular sense of the word, described in Genesis as a perfect oasis, it was also paradise in the common Christian usage because Adam and Eve were granted the privilege of everyday, one-on-one interaction with God the Father. Their expulsion from the Garden was the beginning of mankind’s long separation from God.

Thus, Jesus’ choice of bread and snakes in his lesson on prayer is not arbitrary. Jesus is offering an explanation and a qualifier to his earlier “ask, and ye shall receive” statement. Yes, Jesus will give what we ask for, but with the important stipulation that we ask for what will bring us closer to God and help foster our friendship with him. In response, Jesus would never shove us further from the Father. He knows what we need far better than we do, and in our heart of hearts, we all need a relationship with him.

This idea is further explained in several of the later books of the New Testament. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” But two chapters later, James refines the type of wisdom that one should be seeking when approaching God, stating that “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”[vii] When asking for wisdom from God, one is not expecting to receive the wisdom that allows for savvy stock market investment choices or seamless social navigation. Rather, the kind of wisdom that God offers is that which is intended to make one more like him, which equips one to help further the Kingdom of God. As a result of a strengthening relationship with God, the believer becomes both more prepared for and more desiring of the Christian mission to further the Kingdom of God on earth.

We learn that this pursuit of the Kingdom is the primary purpose of prayer in Jesus’ most important lesson on the subject: The Lord’s Prayer. Even those who have never spent a second of their lives within the four walls of a church are at least familiar with this meditation, and others can even recite it from memory. In Matthew 6, Jesus gives his disciples the following prayer:

Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.[viii]

Right off the bat, Jesus addresses God as “our Father.” This quickly establishes that prayer is relational, personal, and even familial. Additionally, older translations of this passage, such as the King James Version quoted above, use “thy” in place of “you,” which is notable because “thy” was a much more familiar pronoun than “you,” the equivalent of “tú” rather than “usted” in Spanish. He then asks that “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This request is massive, infinitely important, and completely natural. Jesus is teaching his followers what they should yearn for above all else. Prayers should not center on personal gain, but rather on personal growth, which is the beginning of the Kingdom manifesting on earth. The request for personal internal change is vital to prayer life. More than asking for objects or rewards, prayer is about asking for gentleness, kindness, patience, and self-control while also bowing with humility to acknowledge a true lack of these qualities. Yet even this humility is impossible to achieve without the Father’s help. In the absence of his aid, all the heart intuitively knows is how to posture without substance. It is easy to state that we need to be kinder; it is difficult to truly believe that, and it is even more difficult not to feel smugly pleased with ourselves for our incredible self-awareness.[ix]

This spiral illustrates our intrinsic flaw and is the reason why Christianity places such an emphasis on prayer: none of us are truly self-aware. This theme is ubiquitous, running through philosophy classes, centuries of literature, and the Bible. American writers Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and their contemporaries ask what truly lies hidden within the human spirit, and all come up with approximately the same answer: nothing good.[x] Humans overcome one problem only to uncover another. When we stop drinking as much, we start feeling superior to those who have not. When we go out of our way to do favors for our friends, we resent that they do not do the same for us. Prayer offers us the means to become increasingly aware of our own depravity, as night after night we find ourselves continuously asking to be more this and less that. It is at this point that Christians realize how truly fortunate they are to have a God who loves them, listens to them, and wants to “give generously to all.”[xi] Equipped with this honest awareness of who they are and of their insurmountable distance from perfection, Christians are able to love God far more fully than they could without prayer. This is why the “thy Kingdom come” line of the Lord’s Prayer is so important and why merely requesting kindness is not enough: Christians must desire the Kingdom itself, for the Kingdom is the desire of the One they begin to love more than themselves.

This is a natural extension of a developing friendship. We wish our friends well, hoping that they get into the graduate schools of their choice and finish the marathon that they are training for. If we can do anything to help, we willingly offer our support, bringing them coffee in the library while they work on their applications and coming out to the race to cheer for them. When they open the acceptance letter or cross the finish line, we are genuinely happy for them; their accomplishments are our joy. But we would never think to claim that our coffee or cheers are the reason for their success. This is a Christian’s relationship with God; he is the star of the show, the one working on the greatest thesis ever known to man. His followers are there to do anything they can to be able to see him succeed, because his success is what they want even more than their own.

After this line, Jesus does eventually get around to asking for something: “Give us this day our daily bread.”[xii] Notice the scale of the request, though: Christ is asking only for enough to survive for the day. More than a request, this is a statement of faith. Bread, both as a metaphor for God’s word and in its literal form, is the building block of sustenance and the first component in allowing man to live, grow, and flourish. Jesus is stating that he believes that God will provide him with the means to make it through another day. He does not need to worry about what is to come, because he trusts that God is in control. This becomes incredibly important later in Jesus’ life, when he asks the night before his crucifixion, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”[xiii] Although Christ’s specific request was not granted, God instead gave him the strength to complete his mission on earth and face the cross: daily bread.

This is often how God works in prayer: he will not always give exactly what we asked for in response to a difficult situation, but he will give us what we need to survive. Prayers for the healing of a family member’s illness or the cessation of pain, whether emotional or physical, often go unanswered for longer than we would like. At times like these it is important, if not comforting, to remember that God’s view of the world is significantly different from ours. If this universe is a patchwork quilt, it is held so close to our eyes that we can only see darkness, whereas God sees every side, angle, and miniscule detail alike. Christians do not know why some of their prayers go apparently unanswered while others result in fantastic, timely displays of God’s love and listening ear. Christians do know, however, that God will not leave them to flounder on their own. God may not offer immediate healing, but he will offer the believer a chance to see her friends’ and family members’ love at work in her life or give her the internal strength that she needs to persevere. Through prayer, both answered and unanswered, Christians learn more about the way and will of their God.

This leads one to the conclusion that prayer is the ultimate form of conversation. 1 Thessalonians 5:16 tells Christians to “pray without ceasing,” which seems like an unreasonable request until one takes the character of God into consideration. When we go to a friend to seek advice, they will inevitably fall short of center and land on the side of either ignorant or overbearing. God, of course, does not have these shortcomings. Man is endlessly inferior to and in need of God. Nevertheless, God wants to hear from and offer help to man. And man should want to talk to God, out of an increasing realization of the richness contained in each and every exchange with the Father, and out of a growing love for the One who first loved us. When these conversations become a regular occurrence, Christians begin to see a change in their lives.

A prayer life starts out like the start of any new friendship. The first few times we are together, we want to fill all of the silences, taking painstaking care with our words in order to be seen as witty, interesting, and fun. When the conversation is over, we exhaustedly retreat. As we grow closer, we will one day find ourselves sitting on the floor of one of our dorm rooms doing homework. If we have a thought, any thought in the world, we do not hesitate to share it with our companion. We start to pick up on little words and phrases that they use all the time; we give their favorite food a shot even though it looks like something we would never eat. We make small adjustments in our lives to accommodate this new relationship.

That is what prayer without ceasing looks like: God becomes our primary mental conversation partner, our lives see a million tiny adjustments to accommodate his presence, and we are infinitely, inexpressibly better for it.

 

i. Quote is paraphrased from Matthew 7:7.
ii. Matthew 7:7 (NIV).
iii. Matthew 7:7-10 (NIV).
iv. John 6:51 (NIV).
v. Matthew 4:4 (NIV).
vi. See Genesis 2 and 3.
vii. James 3:17 (NIV).
viii. Matthew 6:9-13 (KJV).
ix. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper Collins, 2009), 121-128.
x. See Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.
xi. James 1:5 (NIV).
xii. Matthew 6:11 (NIV).
xiii. Luke 22:42 (NIV).

 

Madeline Killen ’18 is from Belmont, North Carolina. She is a Psychology major with a minor in English.

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