A single 28-year-old woman once came into the office Katie Gohde, a Christian counselor. The woman flopped onto the couch, crossed her arms, and confessed, "I know this sounds awful, but I hate going to church right now and the last thing I want to do is pray. I know I'm supposed to lean on God," she added - with air quotes for emphasis - "And everyone thinks I have a really strong faith. I go to church every Sunday. I lead Bible studies and women's retreats. I've tried to live the right way, but the truth is, I'm burned out. And to be honest, I'm really ticked off at God. I've done my part. When do I get to be happy?"
Katie, the counselor, later reflected on this client. She wrote, "My client was having what we call an "existential crisis." (Those are rough). For 28 years, she had kept up her end of the bargain. She checked all the "stuff that pleases God" boxes. So, where was the husband she prayed for? The kids she longed to have? Why was the formula she taught not working?.. In her confusion, she started asking questions like, "Does God care?" and "Does God even EXIST? Because if He does, it certainly doesn't seem like He cares about me." No wonder she doesn't feel like praying."
This frustration is a common experience for many Christians. If we are doing our part, then why isn't God doing God's part? In particular, this is a common experience with prayer. If we pray, then why doesn't God do something in response to our prayer?
Many Christians seem to have mixed feelings regarding prayer. On the one hand, we know that we should be in constant prayer with God because that's how our relationship with God grows. On the other hand, we wonder if prayer actually "works." Sometimes it feels like we're just whispering into the wind or holding a bunch of thoughts in our head and they don't seem to "do any good." We know the real-life frustrations of not receiving an immediate and obvious answer to our prayers. We know what it's like to ask questions such as these:
- Do my prayers really influence whether someone who is sick gets better or not?
- Do my prayers really make a difference for the victims of wildfires, hurricanes and whatever else?
- Do my prayers really make God do one thing instead of something else?
If we have such conflicted feelings about prayer, even though we know prayer is important, then why do we really pray? What is prayer really for? Is there a right way to pray? Let's look at each of those questions in turn.
WHY DO WE PRAY?
According to a Barna Research study from August 2017, 79% of American adults say that they have prayed at least once in the last three months. The content of their prayers covers a wide range. (The percentages are the percentage of people surveyed who prayed each type of prayer.)
- Gratitude and thanksgiving - 62%
- The needs of my family and community - 61%
- Personal guidance in crisis - 49%
- My health and wellness - 47%
- Confession and forgiveness - 43%
- Things I suddenly feel compelled / urged to pray about - 43%
- Safety in my daily tasks or travel - 41%
- A sense of peace - 37%
- Blessings for meals - 37%
- Specific requests from others - 34%
- Concerns about the nation or government - 24%
- Concerns about global problems or injustices - 20%
- My sleep - 12%
- Reciting scripture passages, mediations, or liturgies - 8%
- Other - 8%
August 2017 Barna Study Group
Aside from gratitude and thanksgiving at the top and "reciting scripture passages, meditation, or liturgies" and "other" at the end, all of the other prayer topics are asking for help in some way. In prayer, we admit that we are in need and we ask God to help us in those needs.
Martin Luther encourages us to bring our needs and concerns to God in prayer. In his Large Catechism (Book of Concord, page 441), Luther wrote, ""The first thing to know is this: It is our duty to pray because of God's command. For we heard in the Second Commandment, 'You are not to take God's name in vain.' Thereby we are required to praise the holy name and to pray or call upon it in every need. For calling upon it is nothing else than praying."
However, asking for help in prayer can easily turn into "gimme" prayers. "Dear God, gimme this. Dear God, gimme that." This can view God as Santa, a genie in a bottle, or a cosmic vending machine. If only you say the right words, or you're a good person, or you do the right things, then God will listen and give you what you want. When that happens, then God has "answered" your prayer. If you don't get an "answer," then either you're not praying the right way, God isn't listening, or God doesn't want to give you an answer.
Although we understand the theory behind the importance of prayer, many people often doubt that it really makes a difference in our lives. If we "pray without ceasing" as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, then we want God to act in our world "without ceasing" too. Quite often, though, it doesn't seem to work that way.
For example, this approach to prayer has come under critique in our national landscape with the comments regarding "thoughts and prayers" after a national tragedy. After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California on Dec 2, 2015 that killed 14 people and wounded 21 others, many politicians expressed that their "thoughts and prayers" were with the victims and their families. However, the very next day, New York's Daily News ran a cover story that, in the midst of tweets by politicians expressing their "thoughts and prayers," boldly said, "God Isn't Fixing This." There is even a satirical online video game called "Thoughts and Prayers: The Game" (www.thoughtsandprayersthegame.com) where the player tries to stop mass shootings by clicking either "thoughts" or "prayers". (Spoiler alert: the buttons don't do anything in the game.)
However, Luther reminded us that "not receiving an answer" to prayer should not deter us from praying. He reminded us that we offer our concerns to God not because we expect an immediate answer, but rather because we are following God's command to pray. In other words, the one in charge of prayer is God, not us. As Luther wrote in the Large Catechism (Book of Concord, page 441): "Prayer, therefore, is as strictly and solemnly commanded as all the other commandments (such as having no other god, not killing, not stealing, etc.) lest anyone thinks it makes no difference whether I pray or not, as vulgar people do who say in their delusion: 'Why should I pray? Who knows whether God pays attention to my prayer or wants to hear it? If I do not pray, someone else will.' Thus they fall into the habit of never praying, claiming that because we reject false and hypocritical prayers, we teach that there is no duty or need to pray."
The reason we pray is not for us to make God give us something or do something for us. Rather, we pray to follow God's command - a command which is given to us to strengthen our relationship with God.
WHAT IS PRAYER FOR?
Yes, we can pray in obedience to God's command, but since it can seem like our feeble prayers don't really change God or make God act in the world, then why bother? Let's consider an alternative purpose for prayer. Consider this excerpt from Martin Luther's explanation of the Lord's Prayer from his Small Catechism.
The Second Petition
Your kingdom come.
What is this? or What does this mean?
In fact, God's kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.
The Third Petition
Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
What is this? or What does this mean?
In fact, God's good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.
The Fourth Petition
Give us today our daily bread.
What is this? or What does this mean?
In fact, God gives daily bread without our prayer, even to all evil people, but we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.
Do you see a theme here? "God's kingdom comes on its own without our prayer...God's good and gracious will comes about without our prayer...God gives daily bread without our prayer..." Our praying does not change God! God is going to do what God is going to do and our prayers cannot change that.
So then what is the point of prayer if we do not change God when we pray? The point is that God changes us. Notice again Luther's explanations. "But we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us." "But we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us." "But we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving." Prayer isn't about us convincing God to see things from our perspective. It's about God helping us to see things from God's perspective. The practical application of prayer is that we become the people God wants us to be. We become those who reach out to those affected by violence. We become those who God sends out to change the world.
The ELCA resource "EveryWhere and EveryWay: Calling One Another to Prayer" (search "EveryWhere and EveryWay at elca.org ) notes, "We don't just seek God; God seeks us. Even the inclination to pray is a gift from God. When the disciples met after Jesus' death and resurrection, Jesus moved through closed doors to reach them. This image also exemplifies the way Christ can move into our hearts-open or closed-and abide in us. ... God uses prayer to change us and change the world."
Pastor Kelly France from Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Atwater, Minnesota put it this way. "When people pray, we assume a posture of listening. Prayer opens us to hear what God is calling us to do in a situation; it is a way to find clarity in the chaos around us by turning to God, who is greater than our pain and anxiety. Prayer grounds us in God's mission and reminds us that God is active in the world....Prayer moves us beyond ourselves toward God's promise." Pastor Elizabeth Rawlings, from the Lutheran Campus Ministry at University of Washington in Seattle, echoed those sentiments when she said this. "Prayer is being in relationship and communication with God. It breaks open our heart to the world and calls us to action. Simply stating that your thoughts and prayers are with someone is meaningless unless you are actively engaging in and with the pain and suffering in the world - and doing something about it."
IS THERE A RIGHT WAY TO PRAY?
If the purpose of prayer is to follow God's command to pray and to allow God to change us, then does that mean there is a right way and a wrong way to pray? In one sense, God hears all of our prayers, even when we can't find the words for them. Paul reminded us of this in Romans 8:26: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." However, there is a difference between appropriate and inappropriate prayers.
Jesus spoke of this immediately before he taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer. He said, "But whenever 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. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:6-8). According to Jesus, inappropriate prayers are those prayed to draw attention to oneself or to inform God of what's happening. Appropriate prayers are those offered to focus on God and to strengthen one's relationship with God.
In the Large Catechism (Book of Concord, pages 443-444), Luther also reminded us that inappropriate prayers are those offered as if the act of praying were a chore or a work we do in order to please God. Appropriate prayers are those prayed "in order that you may kindle your heart to stronger and greater desires and open and spread your apron wide to receive many things." Again, what we "receive" from God is not like a present that Santa gives to a good child. Instead, it is the change God works in us.
For example, go ahead and pray for yourself, your loved ones, or people in times of tragedy. If you pray and people's lives are restored, thanks be to God. If you pray and there is no restoration, does that mean God has not "answered" the prayer? Not necessarily. When we pray, we are expressing our needs, our frustrations, and our real human emotions before God who can handle it all. Then, instead of us saying, "God, fix all of these problems" prayer is really about us saying, "God, help me to see you at work in the midst of these problems, and even if I can't see you clearly, help me to trust you anyway."
Consider the prayers in the book of Psalms (which Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "the prayer book of the Bible.") Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament from Luther Seminary, wrote: "Fundamentally, worship in Israel was about the praise of God. Just as particular lament psalms often move finally to praise, so also does the entire Psalter. Laments characterize the first three books of psalms, praise characterizes the last two. The book itself takes the reader or pray-er from lament to praise, just as do individual psalms. Worship provides the opportunity for the person in distress to come before God in prayer, to find comfort, and to be restored to the community's praise of God (Psalm 22:25)." Prayer changes us into the people God wants us to be - people who praise and trust God regardless of what happens in life.
Therefore, we pray not because God is there to grant our wishes if only we do the "stuff that pleases God." We pray to show our trust in God and to follow God's command. We pray because we want to see what God is doing in the world and be a part of it. We pray because we want God to be in charge of our lives instead of us trying to be in charge. Plus, these changes take place in us throughout our lives, or, as Paul says "without ceasing.
Maybe that would help that 28-year-old in the counselor's office to pray again. Maybe it will help all of us to pray again too.
Kurt Lammi is the pastor at St Paul Lutheran Church on Dog Leg Road in Dayton, OH. www.StPaulDogLeg.org
 Martin Luther's Small Catechism. ELW p.1163.
 Gaiser, Fred. "Psalms: Introductory Issues: Tehilim" www.EnterTheBible.org https://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=39 Accessed on August 7, 2018.