Why Do Christians Pray?
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
The approach of the fourth annual Day of Prayer for the Environment and the Poor Sunday, March 25, provokes that question.
Whatever our reasons, that we pray doesn’t distinguish us from most other people everywhere all the time.
As the Encyclopedia Britannica points out, many scholars describe prayer as “religion’s primary mode of expression.” It is “to religion what rational thought is to philosophy.” Just as there’s no philosophy without rational thought, there’s no religion without prayer. It has been an element of all religious practice through all history.
The Religious Person
Humankind is sometimes described as homo sapiens, the thinking person. But we’re also called homo religiosus, the religious person. Thought and religious devotion seem equally inherent in human beings. (But don’t assume that means all people are equally religious. It doesn’t — any more than it means all are equally rational!)
Praying makes more or less sense depending on one’s beliefs about “the sacred or holy — God, the gods, the transcendent realm, or supernatural powers.”
Atheists, of course, are least likely to pray. But about one-in-ten do. They pray to whatever they consider supreme — “The air. The universe. The self.” Or maybe they don’t pray to anyone or anything. Christine Wicker wrote in Psychology Today,
Theirs might be the kinds of prayer that don’t need a recipient. They could be a feeling of awe. A sense of the numinous. An upwelling of peace brought on by nature. A moment of transcendence in the presence of music or art. Or simply a moment of felt stillness.
Their prayers might also be an overflowing of gratitude. A shout of joy brought on by being alive. A moment of connection with another human’s pain.
Or, of course, they could also be cries for help from people who can’t help crying out even though they don’t think anyone hears. Trees falling in the forest. The proverbial atheists in foxholes. Or just screamers, who voice their pain because they must and give it meaning because that’s what humans do.
Somewhere, probably in his autobiography Surprised By Joy, though I’ve forgotten just where, I think C.S. Lewis wrote that one thing that kept challenging his atheism and agnosticism was the irresistible urge to say “Thank you!” when he saw something beautiful in nature — like a sunset — though he didn’t think there was anyone to thank.
Who Has Reason to Pray
Pantheists perhaps have more reason to pray than atheists. For them all reality is in some sense divine. If they attribute personhood to the divine (though many don’t), that makes prayer more sensible. There’s someone to hear — and maybe respond.
Polytheists and animists have even more reason to pray. They think there are real, personal agents “out there” listening and responding. Yet most also think the gods or spirits are finite and compete with each other. So it’s difficult for them to pray with confidence — though they might pray with passion. Remember the worshipers of Baal in conflict with Elijah (1 Kings 18). Passion and confidence are very different things!
Monotheists have better reason to pray with confidence, since they think there is a supreme being with power to answer. Yet as Peter Jones explains, some forms of monotheism (like Islam and most modern Judaism) believe in an impersonal god, not the personal God — Elohim, Jehovah — of the Bible. That makes prayer less reasonable.
Christians, as Trinitarian theists, have the best reason of anyone to pray. We conceive of God as eminently personal — indeed, tri-personal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Jones argues that anything less than Trinitarianism ultimately entails an impersonal deity.)
A Father, Friend and Counselor
When it comes right down to it, Christians pray because they understand God to be to them very much like a father, a friend, a counselor — because that’s how Scripture describes the three Persons of the Trinity.
Thus, when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He said,
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. … Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:6–13)
Jesus is “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Do we not talk with our friends, share our thoughts with them, ask them questions, sometimes ask them to do things for us — or offer to do things for them? Surely it makes sense for us to do the same with Jesus. He welcomes us to do so: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). (Note the condition: “in my name” — a subject for another discussion, but it warns us not to think of Jesus, or the Father, as our butler in the sky who does whatever we wish.)
The Holy Spirit is our “Helper,” or better, “Counselor” (the Greek parakletos, one called alongside to advise and aid), whom Jesus said He would send to teach us (John 14:26).
We Know Who’s Listening
Do we go to our fathers, our friends, our counselors for instruction and help? And do we thank them for what they are to us and what they do for us and our loved ones? Since God is our ultimate Father, Friend, and Counselor, should we not go to Him? That is what prayer is all about.
And we pray because, first on the basis of God’s own Word, and as we observe in our experience, we pray because prayer works. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
So why do Christians pray? Because we believe God, our loving Father, Friend, and Counselor, hears and answers.
Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and former Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary.