The simple truth is that most Christians, myself included, don’t pray as we should. So even as I write three posts on the subject of prayer, I’m speaking to myself as well as to any readers. My three posts will answer three questions regarding prayer (why do we pray, how do we pray, and when do pray?).

Why do we pray?

Calvin rightly declares, “Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.2). I will simply highlight three reasons from Scripture.

1. Because God commands us to pray

Such a reason sounds simplistic but we need to feel the weight of God’s Word. Jesus gives the following instructions in Matthew 6:1-9: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. . . . But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this . . . .” Notice how often Jesus says, “when you pray . . . .” The assumption is not that his followers might pray but that they certainly will pray. In 1 Timothy 2:1 Paul urges that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” And most Christians are familiar with Paul’s simple exhortation to the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).

Of course Scripture is replete with commands to pray and examples of prayer. But if we take these commands seriously for what they are—commands—it should change our attitude. Suppose you asked a Christian friend how he was doing and he replied, “You know, I’m doing pretty well. I have been struggling a little bit with stealing things, but this week I only stole two things.” You would likely be stunned. How could someone so blatantly disregard not only civil law but the command of God himself? And yet how easy it is for us to let a week go by with minimal (if any) prayer time and to think little of it.

Samuel had a right assessment of prayer: “For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself. Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you” (1 Sam 12:22-23). Failure to pray is a sin against the command of our Lord and we should view it as such.

2. Because we are needy people

One of the beautiful things about Christianity is that the God of the Bible is not simply a distant sovereign who gives orders from afar. He is a personal God who enters into relationships with humans. He is a warm and loving Father who invites his children to pray. And we should cry out to Him, for we are weak and needy people.

The bottom line is that we need God for everything. One of the reasons we should pray without ceasing is that we should always be depending on God. The Son of God upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:3). If he withdrew his sustaining breath for one second creation would crumble beneath itself. We should not be so misguided as to think that we pray because God is a very needy God who likes to feel wanted. God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). If God were hungry, he wouldn’t tell us, because the world and all its fullness are his! (Ps 50:12). Rather, he reminds us that we are the needy ones.

Specifically, we need God to fill us with joy. The Christian life is filled with tribulation, but it is not a life in which God has called us merely to hang in there. Jesus says that he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). He tells his disciples, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). True joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22)—it is not natural but supernatural. It is not something we can conjure up on our own. We need the Spirit to produce this fruit in our lives. How wonderful then that God gives the Spirit to those who ask him: “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

To those of you brothers and sisters in Christ who deeply struggle with joy, let me gently ask you: how much do you pray? It is easy to turn to other good things when we feel discouraged. I freely admit I love listening to John Piper sermons. I love to read John Frame. I happen to go to a church where I hear Tom Schreiner and Bruce Ware teach on a regular basis—what a privilege. And yet, Jesus doesn’t say, “Learn under gifted teachers and your joy will be full.” He calls us to pray.

If believers at times struggle with joy, think of unbelievers. Although there are certain kinds of fleeting pleasures in the cares of this world, at the end of the day those who are without God have no hope. People need God to save them. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Luke 10:2). It’s not wrong to pray out of compassion for the lost, to pray that God would send out the gospel message through his people and that enemies of the cross would be reconciled to God. This motivation was Paul’s heartbeat: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel] is that they may be saved” (Rom 10:1).

3. Because God is sovereign

The same Paul who prayed earnestly for the lost is the same Paul who declared that “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16). Isn’t the sovereignty of God actually a discouragement to prayer? The resounding answer is no. God’s sovereignty is actually a reason to pray. Think about it this way—if God couldn’t change human hearts, what good would there be in praying? Why would we pray if the final decision hinged on the autonomous will of humans? Furthermore, think about how sinful and rebellious people are. Don’t many of us have friends and family who seem beyond the pale of conversion? We take great hope and courage in knowing that God can change the vilest of hearts by his grace. After all, he changed ours.

In one sense prayer, like preaching, is part of God’s ordained means of salvation. We can never ultimately guarantee conversions by our prayers, but in his mysterious wisdom God wants us to cry out to him in order that he might answer us! Prayer is not a chore that we do drudgingly as a child who knows bad things might happen if he doesn’t do his chores. In some ways prayer is like being on a championship team (I will refrain from naming any specific teams lest I alienate some readers). We know God’s program of redemption will be victorious with or without us, but it should give us great joy to participate.

Ultimately we pray because prayer glorifies God. God gets the glory when his children joyfully obey him and when he helps them in their weakness. “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps 50:15). We pray acknowledging his sovereignty over not only human hearts but all of life: “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom 11:36).


Micah McCormick is assistant pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church in New York.

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