Paul suggests that we do not know how to pray as we should (Rom. 8:26). The Holy Spirit has to intervene for us with groanings that words cannot express. I’m sure you have sometimes felt this way.
There was a recent incident where a person was on life support, and I did not know how to pray. The ideal would be for a complete recovery. But I also knew that the person might not be themselves at all if they recovered. Would it be better for them to go to their eternal reward rather than be a complete invalid or have no presence of mind? I did not know how to pray. So I prayed for the Holy Spirit to intercede for me. I prayed that he would help the family and the person. I did not know what to ask.
In situations like this, you might ask why we pray at all. God knows far better than we do what the best outcome would be. Indeed, Jesus says in Matthew 6:8 that our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask him. Why, then, do we need to pray at all? God has power to do anything, he loves us with an infinite love, and he already knows better than we do, exactly what we need!
I have pondered this paradox over the years. Why pray when God already knows? Why pray when we are not even competent to pray for the best? At least three answers have been helpful to me.
The first is that our prayers are not just about us making requests. The most important part of prayer is simply praising God for who he is and thanking him for what he has done. God deserves our praise and thanks. If we think that prayer is just about getting things from God, then we have missed the point that prayer is most fundamentally about spending time with God in an intimate relationship that he desires. Prayer focuses us on God as the main thing.
A second answer is that prayer changes us within, far beyond some kind of transaction we might think we are making with God. We do not pray because God needs information or advice. One of the main reasons we pray is because we are spiritually formed by a regular, personal connection with God. Many of our deepest needs, ones that we are not even fully aware of, are met by communion with God in prayer.
Prayer reinforces our dependence on God. We know that we need him, but we often forget. Prayer reminds us that we do not have the power to fix all of our own problems or even ourselves. One of the main reasons we need to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) is so that we are constantly reminded that God is the one in control, and we need him. Submitting ourselves to God and his will changes us, helps make us into who he has called us to be.
There is, however, a third reason that God calls us to pray. Is it possible that God actually uses our prayers in order to decide when to act in the world? We Wesleyans believe that God has not determined everything that will happen in the world. He empowers humans to make moral choices if they are willing. Sometimes God intervenes in the world, and sometimes he does not. Could it be that in some cases God decides whether to intervene on the basis of whether we pray?
What a staggering and terrifying thought! What if my prayers sometimes make the difference between whether God allows evil to run its course or whether he intervenes to stop it? What if my prayers could make it more likely that someone would come to faith?
Faith is an individual decision and our prayers cannot directly cause someone to be saved. But what if God, because of his justice, gave a certain amount of grace to everyone to make it possible for them to be saved (prevenient grace)? But then, beyond this minimum amount of prevenient grace, what if our prayers could bring more and more grace around someone? What if everyone has the opportunity, but our prayers could bathe a person in opportunities?
In the end, we do not have to know exactly why God calls us to pray. We simply know that God does tell us to come to him. He desires us. That should be enough in itself. We who are in Christ will want to pray. We do not have to know all the whys in order to enjoy the blessings of the presence of God. What a tremendous gift that God has given not only to his people, but also to the whole world, “for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).
Dr. Ken Schenck is professor of New Testament at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the former founding dean of Wesley Seminary at IWU.