In college, a friend asked me, “What do you think the purpose of prayer really is?”
As prayer team leaders who both highly valued prayer and tried hard to inspire others to value it, one might have thought the answer to that question would be obvious to us, but prayer is one of those things that is simultaneously simple and infinitely complex.
Any child can pray. Yet no one can really claim they have mastered the art of prayer or have a complete grasp of what it is. Because it’s not about following a formula.
Growing up, I was told that prayer is talking to God like you would talk to a friend on the phone. That’s true. Prayer is communication with the friend who knows me better than anyone else. He helps me process at the end of the day. He calls me out on my foolishness and convicts me when I’m selfish. He’s the friend who never grows tired of spending time with me and whom I can bring every burden to.
But what about intercession?
What about asking God for things? Praying for things that are bigger than us, things that we have absolutely no control over? What about that?
That’s what my friend was really asking me: Do our prayers really change what happens in the world?
I remember telling her that I knew for a fact that prayer changed me. (Often I come to God with a certain agenda about a person, but by the end of my prayer, my view of that person has completely changed.) But I couldn’t say with confidence that my prayers changed anything else.
The sad thing is that I thought that perspective was humble. “Who am I, what do I know, compared to God? Wouldn’t it be better if I always just generically prayed for His will to be done?”
Better questions: Who does God say I am? What does He say my prayers accomplish?
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
– John 15:7-8 (Jesus speaking)
But there are also some pretty specific conditions. He doesn’t say, “If you are desperate,” or “If you ask with every ounce of sincerity you have,” he says, “If you are in Me; if My words are in you.”
At the same time, though, the conditions are pretty simple. And if you truly are in Him, then Jesus basically says it is your duty to be fruitful in your prayersㅡit is your duty to accomplish a lot through your prayers. (Actually, he doesn’t say “duty,” he uses a much more inspiring tone: “If you bear a lot of fruit, it will glorify God.” You will actually participate in increasing God’s glory!)
While God obviously knows much more than we do,
He doesn’t say, “Step aside and let me do my thing!” He tells us to ask whatever we wish. He says that if we ask whatever we wish, He will be glorified.
Isn’t that crazy when you think about it?
He could accomplish everything He wanted to on the earth without any assistance, but He doesn’t want to do it by Himself. He wants to raise up a multitude of disciples. He wants to bring healing, freedom, and life to the world through us and our prayers. He wants us to participate! As Walter Wink once said,
“History belongs to the intercessors.”
The real question isn’t, “What is the purpose of prayer?” but rather, “Will I take Jesus at his word?”
Jesus said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
It’s time to stop making excuses and start moving mountains!
Note: Asking for more faith or for more of his heart is certainly not excluded from his directive to ask for “whatever we wish.” I ask for those things all the time, and I think those are some prayers He really delights in answering.