“Why do people have to pray? What’s the actual meaning of prayer?” (Kaylin Cloete, commenting on my “Jesus’ Teaching on Prayer” posts of May 16-17, 2014)
Initially I replied (by e-mail), “Wow! I’ve often thought about that too. What makes me sometimes question the need of prayer is that if God is omniscient He knows everything we need and want, if He is omnipotent He can supply them, and if He is all-loving He will supply them if they would be good for us–all without our praying to Him about them.” However after making that reply, I remembered that prayer is more than asking God for things, its including all forms of talking with God, the commonest often being identified by the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
Therefore when Kaylin asked “Why do people have to pray?” she may have meant “What point is there in talking with God?” rather than just “What point is there in asking God for things?” Thus I decided to try to answer both questions, answering “What point is there in talking with God?” first and then answering “What point is there in asking God for things?” However before doing either, I’ll provide a foundation by looking at the prayers made by our great example, Jesus Christ. Moreover, since this blog’s primary purpose is to explain open theism, I’ll close by showing how open theism encourages prayer.
The Prayers of Jesus
Jesus was probably brought up to give thanks to God before meals and to say the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” Deuteronomy 6:4) and the Eighteen Benedictions at sunrise and sunset, the times of sacrifice. And no doubt he joined with others in prayers when he attended the synagogue on the Sabbath, which it was his custom to do (Luke 4:16). In addition the Gospels record fifteen specific occasions on which he prayed, which I’ll give descriptions of from the ESV (all Biblical quotations in this post are in the ESV) in the order in which they appear in Luke.
Luke 3:21 – Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened.
Mark 1:35 – And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.
Luke 5:16 – But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.
Mark 6:46 – And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. (also Matthew 14:23)
Luke 6:12-13 – In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles:
Luke 9:18 – Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
Luke 9:28-29 – Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.
Luke 10:21 – In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (also Matthew 11:25-16)
Luke 11:1 – Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
John 11:41-42 – So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
John 12:27-28 – “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
John 17:1-26 – When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him…..”
Luke 22:39-46 – And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” (also Matthew 26:36-46 and Mark 14:32-42)
Luke 23:34 – And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.
Luke 23:46 – Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
Reasons for Praying
The passages listed above show both that Jesus prayed in connection with important events in his life–his baptism (Luke 3:21), his choosing of the twelve (Luke 6:12-13), his Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-19), and his vigil in the Garden of Gethesemane (Luke 22:39-46)–and that he regularly withdrew from others so that he could pray by himself. Thus they suggest that we should pray both in connection with important events in our lives and as a regular part of our lives. However Jesus encouraged his followers to pray not only by example but also in his teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount he instructed the crowd on what they should do “when you pray” (Matthew 6:5, 7), implying that they should and would pray.
But why should we pray? Certainly a key reason is that through His spokesmen God has told us to. For example, Paul told his readers (and us) to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), “pray… at all times” (Ephesians 6:18), “[c]ontinue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2), “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and “[make] supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for all people” (1 Timothy 2:1).
ACTS expresses four other major reasons for our praying: to adore God for His greatness, to confess our sins to Him, to thank Him for what He has done for us and others, and to ask Him for things for us and others. The book of Psalms contains stirring songs written by David and others for each of those reasons.
However my reading and thinking about prayer showed me that there are even more reasons for our praying than God’s telling us to and ACTS. Seven are them are described in an article by Dan Hayes at Cru Press Green:
1. builds our relationship with Jesus
2. helps us overcome temptation
3. helps us determine God’s will
4. accomplishes God’s work
5. is a weapon in spiritual warfare
6. is a prerequisite to spiritual awareness
7. is valuable to God
Hayes concludes, “There they are. Seven (of many) reasons for us to give much more thought and attention to prayer than is common among Christians. Even in this writing, I found myself pausing often to take prayer action based on these motivations.” (Seven Reasons To Pray). I urge you to read his article and hope that doing so affects you the same way as his writing of it affected him and my reading of it affected me.
Asking God for Things
The passages listed above show that Jesus prayed for both himself, as when he agonized in the Garden of Gethesemane (Luke 22:39-46), and for others, as when he prayed for those responsible for crucifying him when he was on the cross (Luke 23:34). Thus they suggest that we can make requests of God for both ourselves and others.
Certainly we don’t pray to tell God what we need because He already knows that, Jesus’ telling his disciples, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Rather we pray because prayer expresses our trust in God to provide for us in the way that parents provide for their children. On the same occasion in which Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples he told them, “Which of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11) Thus James encourages us to ask God for what we need, telling his readers, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2), implying that they (and we) would receive more from Him if we’d ask.
Jesus told his disciples the following parable to encourage them to pray continually and persistently: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” Then Jesus told them, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” (Luke 18:2-8)
However sometimes even when we pray continually and persistently our prayers for things aren’t answered. Why aren’t they? Maybe God wants us to wait for our answer, as the souls of the martyrs whom John saw under God’s throne in heaven were told to do in answer to their prayer for God to avenge them (Revelation 6:9-11). Or maybe God intends something else for us, as Jesus recognized when he closed his prayer that God remove “this cup” from him with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Or maybe we haven’t met the conditions for praying effectively, such as forgiving others their trespasses against us (Matthew 6:14-15), praying in faith (Mark 11:24), and praying according to God’s will (1 John 5:14-15).
What should we do when this happens? We should make sure that we’re meeting the conditions for praying effectively. We should accept God’s answer as David did when the child for whom he was praying died, resuming his normal life with the explanation that “while the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?” (2 Samuel 12:22-23). And we should continue to trust God, knowing that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).
Open Theism Encourages Prayer
Although whether a person holds a traditional or an open view of God would seem to be irrelevant in most types of prayer, it certainly is relevant in supplications or prayers for request for ourselves and others. According to traditional theism, God has already determined (or at least already knows) what is going to happen and can’t change what is planned. Really believing this discourages our making meaningful prayers for ourselves and others. According to open theism, the future is not entirely settled and God’s plans can be changed. Believing this gives us the hope that God will respond to our prayers for ourselves and others and encourages us to pray more passionately and urgently.
The Bible contains several examples of prayers being answered for a change in what God had said would happen. I’ll give just two, one of prayer for oneself and one of prayer for others. In 2 Kings 20:1-7 God told Hezekiah through the prophet Isaiah that he would not recover from his sickness, Hezekiah prayed with weeping to God, and God told Hezekiah through Isaiah, “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD, and I will add fifteen years to your life” (20:5-6). In Exodus 32:7-14 God told Moses that He was going to destroy the Israelites for making and worshipping a golden calf, Moses interceded for them, and “the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (32:14). Later, in Psalm 106:23, David referred to this incident when he observed that God “said he would destroy them–had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” Hezekiah and Moses prayed for God to change what He had said would happen because they thought that the future was open for Him to change. And what changes their prayers brought! God added fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life and He didn’t destroy the Israelites as He had threatened to.
Sometimes I think of how wonderful it would be if I could talk directly with God as Adam did in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9-19), Moses did when he turned aside to see the burning bush (Exodus 3:4-4:17), and Elijah did when he was in a cave on Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19:9-18). However the truth is that I can talk with God at any time and in any place through prayer. I can share my joys and my sorrows with Him, knowing that He will rejoice with and comfort me. I can confess my failures and sins to Him, knowing that He will forgive and strengthen me. I can ask Him for guidance and help, knowing that He will make things work together for good. And of course I can adore and thank Him for who He is and what He does. What a marvellous gift prayer is!