I can’t recall when the change happened. I just know that over the years my approach to prayer has shifted. I now find myself wanting to pray, not just grudgingly knowing I should pray. I have come to see talking to God as not only a duty but also a delight.
The transformation has had to do in part with a simple yet profound discovery: As I pray, I give attention not only to the “what” but also the “why” of prayer. Going deeper in prayer has meant looking closely at the bigger picture, remembering that I come at the invitation of God Himself.
In some ways, the why of prayer seems obvious. God calls us to pray, doesn’t He? Isn’t that reason enough? In passage after passage in Scripture, we’re urged, even commanded, to pray. “Ask … knock,” Jesus tells us in bold imperatives (Matthew 7:7). Paul the apostle even tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to pray “constantly.” We pray because, well, we’re supposed to. And for a while, that may seem reason enough.
But have-tos and how-tos make up only a part of a growing life of prayer. Beyond those, knowing the deep reasons of why we pray can give us energy for the long haul that spiritual growth will require.
When I need to go further in prayer, here are some things I try to remember:
God actually likes to hear us talk. The great God of the universe, the all-wise, infinitely powerful God pauses to listen to me? Jesus promises us it’s so. Whenever we pray, we do so at Christ’s personal invitation. In Matthew, when Jesus says, “Ask … seek … knock,” it’s a command, but it’s also a glorious assurance. He even told a story in Luke 18 about a pesky widow who, in seeking justice against someone who had wronged her, wore down a judge with her nagging. Will God, far better than the grumpy arbiter in Jesus’ parable, do any less?
“Some people worry that they will trouble God with their constant asking,” D. L. Moody once said. “But the way to trouble God is not to come at all.” A God who turns toward us with a listening ear—what could motivate us more?
Prayer not only changes us; it changes things. In other words, God responds. God won’t always answer just as we expect, of course. Prayer isn’t like inserting a debit card into an ATM and waiting for the bills to roll out. But when we keep before us God’s eagerness to respond, we’ll find motivation to continue. We pray, then, not only out of urgency but also expectancy. We pray because in some mysterious way, it accomplishes something profoundly important, even when we don’t immediately see the full outcome.
“Only God can move mountains,” E. M. Bounds once wrote. “But prayer moves God.” That means prayer is more than talking to ourselves or throwing vain words up at an impervious ceiling. It’s making contact with the Reality behind all reality.
Prayer puts us on the frontlines of God’s work in the world. To pray is not to fold our hands in resignation, not when you realize that it actively engages the God who made and sustains the world. Prayer is not a quiet retreat but a way to invite God’s awe-inspiring power and presence into daily, real-life situations—into the lives of people we know and love and care about. Prayer allows us to bring the situations of the world and the needs of others into the presence of a living, loving, powerful God. To engage in prayer is to invite God to continue to bring His purposes about in sometimes subtle—but always powerful—ways.
Prayer connects us with the One all hearts long for. Once a woman wrote me in response to something I’d written. “I was raised in a church,” she said. “We went every Sunday, and that is just what we did: We went. We didn’t experience God or relate to Him. I had no idea a relationship with God was possible.” She went on to describe wonderful discoveries she was making about prayer—discoveries that had to do with a newfound intimacy she never knew was possible.
Prayer is less the language of transaction and preeminently the vocabulary of relationship. We are made by God for relationship with Him. “Our hearts are restless,” prayed Augustine, centuries ago, “until they find their rest in you.” If I am made to know and converse with God, it stands to reason that I will find my truest purpose and fullest life only as I make room for such conversation.
My discoveries about the reality of the why’s of prayer have only begun. What I began to sense years ago, I still must sometimes relearn. But something basic—and radically freeing—has changed in the climate of my efforts. And what a difference that has made.
All Dried Up?
Every growing Christian experiences moments when prayer seems rich, even exhilarating. But what about the times when our hearts seem dry, when words don’t flow?
Pray about praying. We may subtly think growth in prayer is “up to us,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Paul the apostle spoke of prayer as a struggle sometimes and reminds us that the Spirit “helps in our weakness,” even “intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26).
Keep it simple. God expects sincerity in prayers, not eloquence and elegance. Knowing that God looks at our hearts, not our flowery vocabulary, frees us from worrying about the words. Prayer may even (and in fact often does) happen in the midst of moments when our words quiet down or even cease and turn into silence.
Aim for progress, not perfection. We sometimes forget that growth in prayer is an ongoing, lifelong thing. The God who began a good work in us, as Paul said, “will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).