Confession: Why pray?

Throughout this semester, I will be posting the situational "confessional briefs" I am writing for one of my classes. These are 750-800 word answers to common questions about faith, which must include bountiful biblical references and ancient/modern theological texts. My goal here is not to set out conversation ending pronouncements, but start a conversation around the table of grace. Join me! To my knowledge, the icon in today's post has no copyright.

Question: What difference does it make if I pray?

Context: For this question, I am assuming a church member who has faced a prayer not answered in the way she wanted. I will be referring to the Heidelberg Catechism in this response, contextualizing it to my specific congregation who does not currently live under this older confession, but holds it as an integral founding document to their movement of churches centuries ago.

I confess...

    Before beginning, we should confess what a thoroughly modern question this is: our Scriptures do not so much articulate the degree to which our prayers make a difference, instead teaching us how to pray and that we should. Earlier theological works also address more of the “what” and “how” questions of prayer, rather than the “why”. In the beginning of the Christian journey, the reason for prayer could be easily implied: Jesus took much time to pray and taught the disciples a model prayer, therefore we should follow this example (Mt 14:23; Lk 11:2-4). The implied importance of prayer continues as we see the prominence of the role of prayer in the early church, and Paul’s continued requests for prayer in the epistles (Acts 1:24; Rm 15:13). Paul especially articulates his belief that prayer is effective in his letter to the Philippians, asking for prayers along with the power of Christ to deliver him (Phil 1:19). What difference does prayer make in the New Testament? Prayer evidences a life that has been shaped and molded by God. While there are some examples of simple, cause and effect type prayers and responses, the Scriptures overall show that one main difference prayer makes is keeping us uniquely in relationship with God, regardless of the outcome.

    This implied reason for prayer is stated explicitly in our important theological documents. Our forefathers in the faith articulated the purpose for prayer this way in the Heidelberg Catechism: we pray “because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us. And also because God gives… grace and [the] Holy Spirit only to whose who pray continually and groan inwardly.”1 Note that the emphasis here is not on trying to convince God to provide for our needs or change situations. Rather, the emphasis of prayer is on thankfulness to God and receiving the Holy Spirit. What difference does it make if we pray? According to those who have gone before us, it is important because it is an act of personal worship, and the means by which we might understand the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

    Nevertheless, the question beneath our subject today remains: will prayer change our circumstances? We understand some theoretical reasons for prayer: keeping relationship with God, worship, and understanding the Spirit. But at the end of the day, is prayer an action we can take on to change the world? Yes, it is. Sometimes our heartfelt prayers are answered with a “yes”. Sometimes, it appears as if our prayers are the determinant factor in God’s movement (Ex 32:14). We also must face the truth that quite often in the world, our most intense, heartfelt prayers are not answered in the way we would wish to see them fulfilled. Is this a sign of impotence or evil in the divine? Certainly not, for even Jesus prayed against Calvary to the point of sweating blood, and still was faithful to the point of death (Mt 26:39). If there are times when our prayers won’t achieve our desired outcome, why continue in prayer?  Joan Chittister phrases it this way: we don’t pray so that we can change God, “we pray so that God can change us. Those who pray prepare for the in-breaking of God in their lives.”2 Somehow, some way in prayer the Spirit of the living God changes us. In the wisdom of God we are held and formed into a resurrected Way of life. Prayer is no magic wand to force the hand of God to move in our direction, rather it is the very practice by which God instills in us the peace which passes all understanding. Prayer is our deepest groans and yearnings expressed before God. What difference does it make if we pray? The person willing to express all of their being, every desire and groan, has truly become vulnerable with God: restoring the kind of naked trust shared with the Divine in the Garden of Eden. Our desires may or may not ever be fulfilled in prayer, but our union with God will leave us changed and resurrected to live in a new way.

[1] The Prussian Evangelical Church, The Heidelberg Catechism, (Heidelberg, Germany: 1563), republished by the United Church of Christ online at [].

[2] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, republished in Living Well: Christian Practices for Everyday Life, (Naugatuck, CT: LifelongFaith Associates, 2009), 10.6.