Theology

the purpose of prayer

I don’t understand prayer. I don’t understand what it is, or what it’s supposed to do, well, theologically. The traditional understanding of prayer that I was given as a child and young adult doesn’t make sense to me any longer. I was taught that prayer is a combination of a) something we’re supposed to do for God just because, b) a conversation where two people get to know one another, and c) the means we have for asking our deity for things.

None of those ideas work in the same way for me anymore. The idea that God requires us to worship Them in specific ways like prayer or church attendance screams social construct to me– and again, not because social constructs aren’t important or “real,” but because I’ve come to think that Christianity is not the only way of understanding the Divine. It’s the faith system I’ve chosen, but that doesn’t make it The Only True Religion. My religion uses a specific form of prayer as part of our worship, but that’s not nearly as concrete to me as it once was. I can worship God in a variety of ways, and the primary form I’ve chosen to do that is love their sheep.

Reason #2 illuminates one of the ways I’ve always been a skeptic: even as a child the idea that prayer was “getting to know Jesus by talking to him” seemed an incredibly bogus claim. First, a conversation requires two active participants and no one was claiming that Jesus swung by for afternoon tea to chat about the weather. Second, I clearly wasn’t “getting to know Jesus” and if God already knows me the way an omniscient being would, then prayer wasn’t a means for God to know me, either. I’ve never been able to think of prayer as having a conversation with God. Maybe I talked and they listened, but that felt … frustrating. Even therapists don’t spend 100% of their time in silence listening to me talk.

What seems to be the primary function and utility of prayer for the vast majority of American Christians is to ask God for things, and that’s the biggest part I struggle with. Even Jesus’ model for prayer includes this: give us this day our daily bread is pretty clearly a request. This aspect of prayer has created theological problems for Christians for millennia because they’ve struggled to comfortably answer “why didn’t God answer my prayer?” People aren’t saved from sickness or poverty or abuse or battle all of the time, and this flies in the face of biblical promises. Jesus in Matthew 7 seems pretty blunt: “Ask, and it will be given you.” Obviously this doesn’t happen, so either Jesus has been widely misinterpreted there or he was wrong/misrepresented.

I’ve read a lot of books trying to get answers to these questions. C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer was not as helpful as I was hoping, and while Gregory Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt helped me articulate a lot of the problems I was having with the typical articulation of prayer and faith, it didn’t really settle any questions on what prayer is.

One answer that has been somewhat satisfying is the idea that prayer in Christianity was intended to function a bit like meditation in other religions. There’s a long Christian tradition of contemplative prayer, or lectio divina, as well as forms like centering prayer advocated by Thomas Merton. I think it’s possible that humans need some practice like this in our lives, physically and emotionally. Stress can cause so many health problems, and taking some time to de-stress, whatever that looks like for us, seems important. Prayer being a religious practice is significant to me: people thought taking the time to meditate, to sit in the silences and just be, so important that they made it a part of the Christian religion. It all sort of got hijacked, though, and then American religious conservatives threw in a heavy dose of yellow-peril racism (“meditation is inviting demons to possess you”) so now it’s harder to have conversations about these historic forms of prayer without people getting panicky about “Eastern Mysticism.”

In spite of all that, I and some of my colleagues have openly embraced the idea of prayer-as-meditation and have replaced “prayer time” in our “devotionals” with meditation apps. I spend a lot of time studying the Bible and theology, and I spend some time contemplating or meditating. I’m learning to enjoy the act of quietness, and hopefully it’s something I’ll be able to continue in September once my life gets hectic again. I don’t have solitary “prayer” anymore, and I think my life is better for it.

The one truly valuable thing I have discovered about prayer recently is in its communal aspects. I meet with a small group/book club every week, and we still formally share prayer requests at the beginning of our discussions. For a while I was doing it simply out of habit– we’re Christians sitting in a circle getting together to talk about a religious book, of course we’re going to take prayer requests. Over time, though, I realized that this action was doing something incredibly important.

For 15-30 minutes every week, everyone gets to share what’s on their mind and heart with a group of people whose only job is to listen. It’s not a problem solving session, and while common experiences and advice might get shared that’s often absent or not the point. The entire point is that a person gets to share what they care about, or what troubles them without interruption– and they’re doing it in the context of the belief that this moment of vulnerability is sacred. Each week, I’m asking them to care about what I care about, and the response is always unanimous: yes, we care. Yes, we will listen for as long as you need. Yes, we will bring this to God. You’re important, you matter, and not just in a metaphorical sense. We will purposely set aside time and space to listen to your heart.

That’s a pretty incredible thing we’re doing, and it occurred to me that we don’t often see it occur naturally in other sorts of interactions. Usually the closest thing only happens with intimate friends or family, people that we trust quite a bit. But in the context of sharing prayer requests, there’s a formal method we all follow, and it’s been culturally ingrained into a lot of us. Create a sacred time and space for people to talk, and others to offer comfort. My small group is intentional about it, and there are a few rules in place to help prevent some of the abuses we’ve all experienced through “prayer time” at other churches. Nothing ever gets shared or talked about outside the group without express permission, and anything that gets shared in that time will never be weaponized against us later. We’ve acknowledged that what we do can only be done in trust, and we literally hold that trust as sacred.

So, long story short, I don’t understand what prayer does between me and God– but I do think I’m starting to understand what prayer does for me personally and my friends communally. If the only actual purpose of prayer is to get us to really listen to each other and form a community based on trust, then perhaps it’s worth doing whether or not it makes perfect sense.

Photo by Michael Dorausch
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  • lupiter

    I must have been very lucky, because as a kid I saw lots of ways to pray. Lectio divina, singing, walking a labyrinth, “korean” prayer, journalling, burning bits of paper, dancing, babbling, imaginary journeys. I think that any way we communicate with God counts as prayer, good on you Samantha for finding something that works for you! 🙂

  • Flannery O’Connor

    I really liked reading this because I think a lot of people struggle with this as well. I often find myself going into a meditative state in prayer. That’s one of the reasons why I love prayer beads and the rosary. I do love the idea of what The Shack presented- that prayer is like God being a parent listening to their child. They know all about the child and their life but thats not why a parent listens. They listen because they love the child and want them to talk.

    I wouldn’t say that God doesn’t respond. I’ve often found that He does, strangely enough.

    • Maan Di

      I’m just curious about this description from The Shack, so I shared my thoughts on that below & I’m interested in your response, since it really clicked for you. I’m not trying to criticize, I just see it very differently & I’m curious to know why that metaphor worked for you, from your personal experience, so I can understand it better.

      As a parent, the idea that I know all about my kid’s life feels laughable to me, though. I think it’s a lovely way to speak about God, but the “parents are their children’s gods” theology has always in my experience been inherently harmful. I mean to say that I’ve never known any parents who worked with those metaphors & who also showed their kids truly unconditional love (I’m not asking for perfection, just respect & loving their kids as they actually are…instead of trying to “mold” their kids’ personalities).
      My child is four, they is with me pretty much 24/7, & they still surprise me all the time with playground interactions that I miss & thoughts/feelings that I had no idea were there & that change without my realizing it.
      In my prayer/meditation with God, I certainly get the feel that They do already know how I’m feeling etc, but that They delight in my sharing that with Them & listening to Them. In my relationship with my child, I have to listen closely b/c I often have no idea why they’s doing what they’s doing & when I think I do know, I’m often wrong. Each human is a universe unto themself & has endless things to teach us. Parents are not, & should not be, gods.

  • rumpledtulip

    Thank you for writing about this. I have struggled with “what prayer is and is not” for a long time and especially acutely in the past couple of years when one perfectly innocent prayer (for the blessing of the life of a newborn child my friend was going to adopt) was “answered” in the worst possible way (by a long battle with the birth mother and the sudden death of my friend from broken heart syndrome.) It made me feel that God could simply not be trusted.

    I have experienced communal prayer with a small group for about two years as I started meeting with several people from my church for morning prayer time once a week. Even when I am in knots and cannot pray, there is something in just sitting and listening to others and being quiet for a little while. What you expressed about the value of contemplation and listening is what I have come to dimly understand lately, and the way you expressed it made it very clear all at once. So thanks.

  • Paige

    The communal aspects of prayer are also helpful for spreading out the weight of our burdens, so it’s not all on our close friends and family, which can sometimes be too much for them (also another reason it’s helpful to have a therapist).

  • If you don’t believe Christianity is the only way, then how
    does it have any value? I mean, either God is the god of the universe or He isn’t

    Loving His sheep is an important form of
    worship, but when you have a relationship with Jesus Christ and you realize who
    He truly is, you can’t help but worship Him in your prayers also.

    As if prayer is just Jesus dropping over for
    afternoon tea to talk about the weather. God is with us all the time through
    His Holy Spirit. We can converse with Him about all that’s on our mind and
    everything going on throughout the day.

    “Give us this day our daily bread” means
    spiritual bread. We’re asking God to teach us more about Himself.

    The verse about “ask and it shall be given unto you” talks
    about things we ask for that are according to the will of God. The Bible
    clearly says in the Book of James that God won’t grant our selfish requests.

    The prayer time at your book club sounds like a good thing
    and more Christians should have the rules that book club has in place.

    • “The verse about “ask and it shall be given unto you” talks
      about things we ask for that are according to the will of God. The Bible
      clearly says in the Book of James that God won’t grant our selfish requests.”

      So the desperate prayers from people facing terminal illness, families who are at risk of losing their health insurance, or are trying to escape their war-torn countries, are selfish requests? Those prayers get denied every single day. Your God sounds like a monster.

      • No, those aren’t selfish requests. In those cases, those requests aren’t in accordance with God’s will for that particular person’s life. If that person is in relationship with God, then to live is Christ and to die is gain.

        • How very convenient.

          • That’s the way it is. Take it or leave it.

          • No, that’s toxic theology

          • More like toxic to what you’d like to believe and the way you’d like to live your life. Let God be God.

          • That’s not what I do at all, but thanks for that assumption.

          • Truth be told, no one actually knows why some prayers are answered over others. So your interpretation is not the final authority on this.

          • You’re right, no human knows, only God in His sovereignty and wisdom. Again, let God be God.

          • If you agree that no one can know, then we can agree to disagree on the meaning of prayer. There are thousands of denominations and thousands more interpretations, many of which are backed with scholarship.

          • I will never agree to disagree with you.

          • That tells me all I need to know about you, then.

          • #HePersisted

            You’re very rude.

          • *Beth* is one that’s rude here? Really?

            Nope. Bye.

    • Just a quick note:

      “Christianity isn’t the only way” doesn’t render “God is the god of the universe” false. Both ideas are compatible.

      • Beroli

        It does, however, render “A god who tortures everyone who isn’t a Christian for eternity is the one and only god of the universe” false, which I think Alex may consider the same thing.

      • No they aren’t. Either what He said about Himself is true or it isn’t. He doesn’t give us any other option.

        • … because? Alex, why exactly are you commenting? “To engage in conversation” doesn’t seem to be your purpose since you’re just making unsupported pronouncements, so I’m getting annoyed. Either engage in a substantive way, or please stop commenting.

          • Trolls for Jesus

          • You say unsupported statements because they don’t fit with the pick your ownm God theology you seem to prefer on this blog. I am simply trying to make the point that if God is God, then we can’t just dismiss doctrines we don’t like or put what we’d like to believe as fallen humans inm place of the truth. You’re getting annoyed because I’m calling you out on all that garbage.

          • They’re unsupported… because you’re not supporting them. You have done nothing to give “Either what He said about Himself is true or it isn’t” any support. You’ve just … declared it.

            And this is suddenly relevant for other people reading along. I’ve encountered behavior like what Alex is doing before:

            http://samanthapfield.com/2014/11/19/christians-know-your-own-feelings-better-than-you/

          • In short, Alex is done commenting here. I don’t have to put up with rude people telling me what the reasons are for my own feelings, thankfully.

          • Great post. Another favorite is, “You’re just reading your own desires into Scripture to justify your life choices.” Usually in debates about gay marriage. I can’t disagree because I understand the text differently than they do. Nope, despite being a cis-het married woman, I’m clearly looking to excuse my own sin. Ooookay.

          • , despite being a cis-het married woman, I’m clearly looking to excuse my own sin.

            Even if you were not interested in following that rule, that doesn’t make the rule right. Nabeel Qureshi, in his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, which tells his Muslim-turned-Christian story, mentioned that when he thought Christians were trying to justify their bad behavior with their atonement theories.

            I found it interesting to see the Fundamentalisys get a taste of their own medicine.

          • The irony about his statements is that Salafi Muslims* would believe he is doing what he accuses you of doing concerning who God is.

            *Basically, the Muslim version of conservative Christians

    • “Give us this day our daily bread” means spiritual bread. We’re asking God to teach us more about Himself.”

      I bumped into this quote a while ago and my experiences are continually proving it more and more accurate:

      “A fundamentalist makes the metaphorical literal and the literal, metaphorical.”

  • I love C.S. Lewis’ thoughts that prayer helps us become more like God. I’ve struggled a lot recently with whether I still believe that God intervenes today as he did in the bible. It’s really hard for me to believe that when children die every day of preventable diseases, but meanwhile prayers of the privileged for parking spots and new houses get answered all the time, if my Facebook feed is to be believed.

    I can’t forget the Facebook post I once saw from a woman praising God for a foreclosed home she just bought super cheap. Praise God another family went into debt so you could have your dream home?

    • Maan Di

      Yeah, I suspect that a lot of those instances are not answered prayers, they’re just the benefits of privilege. But of course framing wealth as a tenet of Christianity lends spiritual power to the moneyed Christians, sooo…. One of the things that struck me most deeply during my studies of literature is that privileged people always believe that they are closer to the divine & that the rest of us are closer to the purely animal. It’s disgusting, but it’s also such a common way for privileged persons to view the world, even if only subconsciously.

      One thing I’ve been holding onto lately is that yes, God does intervene. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but when I do see it I realize that “small” miracles are quite common. & also that children have always died of preventable disease, people have always been forced into slavery & femmes have in most societies had to contend with subjugations by masculines…but that God feels all the suffering with us. & the history I read in the Bible reads like a slow evolution of the human race, with God taking the patient time to grow & bring more nuance to humanity’s understanding of empathy, love & consent. Taking the long view has helped me, as have feeling God’s own sorrow for our sorrow & knowing that I’m not going to burn in hell or make God angry if I just feel the awfulness of it sometimes…I don’t have to be a manic pixie faith girl to please God. I can scream unfairness at the heavens, & They will answer me.

      Also quitting Facebook, lol. That helped a lot.

  • Kaci

    This is a really interesting post. Prayer is something that I struggle with too. I’m Episcopalian and I love the language in the Book of Common Prayer: those words resonate with me more than most prayers I come up with on my own. But I also sometimes feel like it’s inauthentic to rely so much on other people’s words.

    I’ve found the idea of “practicing the presence of God” to be useful in my ideas of prayer, even if it’s just a minute here and there in the day to remember that God is present. I’m one of those people that actively dislikes silent meditation of the “empty your mind” sort, which is one of the other reasons I do better with the BCP. (But meditation is great for people it works for!)

    As far as praying for people and situations, I haven’t found an answer. I feel like it’s a good thing to do, but I can’t really fathom how I could actually change God’s mind about anything. John Polkinghorne has some interesting ideas in Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity.

  • Stephanie Gertsch

    I’ve never liked when groups open with prayer requests because you just know it’s going to turn into 45 minutes of overshare free-for-all, followed by fifteen minutes of rehashing the exact same stuff out loud with everyone’s eyes closed, before you can actually start doing whatever it was you came there to do.

    I once had a three hour class in college where up to the first hour was taken up by prayer requests. The teachers had to tell us nicely to speed it up because we were supposed to be discussing the book. I was relieved because sometimes I was really looking forward to the discussion (and paying a lot of money to be in that class at that university) and didn’t like getting gypped.

    Which I guess all is an argument for why you need to have a meetup specifically for praying and not try to tack it on to something else.

    Group prayer was never much help for me when I was more religious. I’m just not the type to share personal stuff in public or talk for a long period of time. But I’m not going to rain on anyone else’s parade. Just don’t invite me to a book club or meeting if it’s going to be 90% “Let me tell you about my drama–at length!” and 10% everything else squished into the last 15 minutes.

    • Kaci

      That reminds me of my own pet peeve around prayer: the long prayers before meals after the food is already on my plate! I don’t mind thanking God for the meal, but I don’t see why it can’t be done before the food is on the table or after it’s been eaten.

  • Nikki Maija Meyer

    Swinging by to say Kate Braestrup’s “Beginners Grace” is my favorite book on prayer and she tackles similar questions you do here.