What is the Purpose of Prayer?

Lorraine Day, M.D. 

In August 2005, Newsweek and Beliefnet asked 1,004 Americans what they believe and how they practice their faith.  One of the questions was this:  

What do you think is the most important purpose of prayer? 

Here are their responses... 

a. To seek God's guidance (27%)
b. To thank God (23%)
c. To be close to God or the divine (19%)
d. To help others (13%)
e. To improve a person's life (9%)
f.  Other (4%)
g. Don't know (5%)

Prayer is not to “get” things:  Prayer is to “get” God 

Most Christians pray when they need something, whether something material or a change in their external circumstances.  But prayer is first and foremost designed to “get” God – to get to know God, to learn to trust God. 

Oswald Chambers says it best: 

“Prayer is not a normal part of the life of the natural man.  We hear it said that a person’s life will suffer if he doesn’t pray, but I question that.  What will suffer is the life of the Son of God in him, which is nourished not by food, but by prayer. 

“Ask and God will do.  Give Jesus Christ the opportunity and the room to work.  The problem is t hat no one will ever do this until he is at his wit’s end.  When a person is at his wits’ end, it no longer seems to be a cowardly thing to pray. . .As long as you think you are self-sufficient, you do not need to ask God for anything. . . 

“To say that ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘Prayer changes me, and then I change things.’  God has established things so that prayer, on the basis of redemption, changes the way I look at things.  Prayer is not a matter of changing things externally, but one of working miracles in a person’s sinner nature.”  O. Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, Aug 28 

We often pray to ask God to change our external circumstances so our life will be better, or at least more comfortable.  We ask God to remove from our life things – or people – who are hurtful to us, or irritating to us, or making our life miserable.  And when that doesn’t happen, we think God has not answered our prayers. 

But God has a longer view in mind.  The answer to that prayer is often, “My grace is sufficient for thee” (2 Cor 12:9).  God will leave us in those circumstances until we understand that WE are the ones who need changing, not our external circumstances. 

We are always trying to deliver ourselves from trouble.  We think that if we can either 1) get rid of the job we hate and get a new one, or 2) replace the spouse that is causing us so much trouble, and get a new one, 3) or move to a different location to get away from whatever is bothering us in the old location, things will be different. 

But unfortunately, if that were to happen, we still take along ourselves to the new situation.  And often “ourselves” are the problem. 

We must wait for God to “deliver” us from these situations, rather than trying to deliver ourselves.  There are times when God will change our external circumstances, but more often than not, He wants to change our inner self – the way we react to our external circumstances. 


For example, Stress is always present in our life, and Stress is a major cause of disease.  But God doesn’t remove all the Stress from our life just because we ask Him to do so, instead, He teaches us how to handle the stress HIS way – by learning to trust Him, and rely on Him, rather than relying on ourselves.  He changes the way we look at life, so we quit trying to run from our circumstances and, instead, look them squarely “in the face” and learn how to deal with them. 

“Come unto Me, all ye that labor and our heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”  Matt 11:28-29

“Cast your cares on Him, for He cares for you.”  1 Peter 5:7 

“Be anxious for nothing.”  Phil 4:6 

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean NOT on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.”  Prov 3:5,6 

“When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with Me.”  Psalm 23:4

God is building strong people with a strong character 

God wants us to be strong for Him - those who will “stand for the right, though the heavens fall.”  We must be sorely “tested” to see if we are secure in our faith to stand for God no matter what happens.  We are never sure if we have that kind of faith until it is severely tested. 

“Every time you venture out in your life of faith,. You will find something in your circumstances that, from a commonsense standpoint, will flatly contradict your faith.  But common sense is not faith, and faith is not common sense.  They are as different as the natural life and the spiritual life.  Can you venture out with courage on the words of Jesus Christ, while the realities of your commonsense life continue to shout, ‘It’s all a lie”? 

“Faith must be tested, because it can only become your intimate possession through conflict.  Faith is absolute trust in God – trust that could never imagine that He would forsake us (Heb 13:5-6).”  Ibid, 8/29 

Wherever you are in your life right now, God has put you in those circumstances.  If they are difficult, do not try to deliver yourself, because God has a purpose in placing you in that situation.  If you don’t master those circumstances, or change your inner life to handle those circumstances, but instead, deliver yourself to a situation more to your liking, that can become a major disaster, and could turn out much worse than your original situation.  

In every situation in life, God is teaching us lessons – lessons that we must learn in order to exhibit Christ’s character.  We must pray for grace, tenacity perseverance, and determination to learn the lessons God is teaching us rather than trying to escape them, even when they are painful and difficult. 

Furthermore, God will never let us escape those lessons indefinitely.  He will always bring us back to the same or a similar situation – until we learn that particular lesson.  The “escape” from the pain, or difficulty, or humiliation, is only temporary.  And when God brings us back to learn that same lesson, the situation usually will be even more difficult. 

It’s much better to learn the lesson the first time around! 

The answers to our prayer may be different from what we want 

There are times when we pray that we ask God to guide us.  And He does – sometime into disaster.  He knows what we want – but He knows even better what we need.  We believe that God has guided us in a certain direction – and He has – but it may be the direction that will show us how wrong we have been in our desires or our previous way of thinking. 

God knows that the best way we learn – sometimes the ONLY way we learn – is to “try it for ourselves” and see that it doesn’t work! 

Why do we have to suffer so much pain to get to know God? 

In the Garden of Eden, God TOLD Adam and Eve NOT to eat of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.  God TOLD them: 

“In the day that you eat of it, dying, you shall die.”  Genesis 2:17 (Literal Translation) 

“In the day that you eat of it, you will begin to die.”  And indeed they did.  They lost their covering of light and their bodies began to die which culminated in their actual death hundreds of years later. 

God TOLD Adam and Eve not to do it – but they did it anyway.  They had to learn for themselves the consequences of their act.  They had to learn how their own sin would affect their family, and all of nature.  They had to learn from experience. 

Even in today’s sinful world, 6,000 years down through history from Adam and Eve, it would be the greatest of tragedies for one of your own sons to murder the other in cold blood.  But that’s what happened to Adam and Eve.  Their son Cain killed his brother, Abel. 

They had to learn from experience the consequences of their sin. 

And, many times, so do we. 

God has told us in His Word how we should conduct our life.  But frequently, we are so blind, we believe we have God’s blessing and direction to follow a certain path, and indeed, we may, but the purpose for taking that path may be to teach us a lesson about our blindness – to teach us that we should not have gone in that direction, and the reasons why. 

Often that is the only way we learn – by going through a painful experience.  As we have said so often, the only way we learn – and change - is through pain.  When everything is going fine, we never change. 

The lives of those who followed the Lord teach us that lesson very clearly.  

Abraham misunderstood God’s command and almost killed His son, Isaac. 

Abraham lied about his wife being his sister, and she was taken from him and almost became the wife of the king. 

David committed adultery with Bathsheba, she became pregnant, and David had her husband, Uriah, killed in battle.  But the son born to Bathsheba died within a few days, causing great heartache to David and Bathsheba. 

Peter had to learn the hard way.  He was sure He would not deny Christ under any circumstances – but he did!  And subsequently Peter had to go through some painful and humiliating circumstances as a result of his denial. 

Paul, as a Pharisee, had been a persecutor of Christians.  But even after his conversion to Christianity, he had to reap what he had sown.  He was beaten, imprisoned, blinded for a few days, ship-wrecked, and targeted for murder by other “Christians” from James’ church. 

But in the end, God knows best.  He knows the lessons we need to learn to become like Him, to exhibit His character rather than our own. 

“All things work together for good, to them that love the Lord, to them that are called according to HIS purpose.”  Romans 8:38

“All is of God, and through God, and to (for) God.”  Romans 11:36