Why Do We Pray?

I’ve been thinking about prayer a lot lately, especially as I’ve been preaching through Book 1 of the Psalms. Again and again the psalmist cries out to the LORD for mercy, help, protection, and forgiveness. He affirms through all of his prayers that he trusts in God and is convinced that the LORD knows the sincerity of his heart. And it is as I reflect on these passages (and, not coincidentally, as I prepare to preach the next one), that I am confronted with the question of just why we pray to a God who knows everything. If God knows our need, why pray for help? If he knows our weakness, why pray for mercy? If he knows the dangers we face, why pray for protection? And yet David prays for all these things and more.

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin explains that prayer is not a gift to God but to his people. In other words, when we pray, we are not doing God any favors or telling him anything he does not already know, but we are receiving a blessing which cannot be obtained by any other means. Calvin describes six benefits of prayer to the Christian, and although there are probably more that could be added, he offers us a helpful place to start.

  1. Prayer trains us to seek, love, and serve the Lord. He says that we pray, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.”

  2. Prayer exposes our desires and focuses them on the Lord. Calvin explains that in prayer we reveal our hearts to God, and our concern ought to be “that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make him a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts.”

  3. Prayer reminds us that everything good comes from God. He said that in prayer, “we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand.”

  4. Prayer reminds us of God’s goodness and prepares us to praise him. When our prayers have been answered, it is good that “we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently,” says Calvin.

  5. Prayer helps us take greater delight in the good gifts of God. When we pray as we ought, we can “embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers.”

  6. Prayer reminds us that God is active in helping his children. Calvin suggests that we pray, “that use and experience may, according to the measure of our feebleness, confirm his providence, while we understand not only that he promises never to fail us, and of his own will opens the way to call upon him at the very point of necessity, but also that he ever extends his hand to help his own, not wet-nursing them with words but defending them with present help.”

It is through prayer that we find the courage and strength to face our fears, secure in the knowledge of God’s goodness and grace. It is through prayer that we learn what it means to actively seek shelter in the Lord when our world is filled with turmoil and adversity. And it is through prayer that we experience the blessing of true fellowship with our heavenly Father, not so that he can discover what we need, but that we can more consistently appreciate his love and care.

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