Prayer's Primary Purpose
Ask yourself what is prayer and why do we pray? The answer to these questions is actually simple but sometimes we want prayer to be something different than it is. Prayer is the means by which we relate to God and continually develop our relationship with Him. It is the time we spend talking to God and, more importantly, listening to what He is speaking to our hearts. It is the greatest means by which we relate to and grow in God and His grace.
Should we pray for specific outcomes? Yes and no. We do not, or should not, pray for specific outcomes as our primary reason for prayer. Our motivation for prayer should be love for God and the desire for an ever deepening relationship with Him. The primary outcome, not outcomes, of prayer is this deepening relationship. Is it okay to pray for ourselves, our loved ones, their needs, the needs of the sick and suffering? Yes. As Jesus said, “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). God already knows all of our needs. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring these needs before Him but it should not be our sole motivation for prayer. Why is this? Does God demand tribute and worship before He will do something for us? Of course not. But He created us and as St. Paul states in the book of Acts: “…for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
God is our sustenance. The more we are in relationship with Him, the more we avail ourselves of His grace and grow in wisdom. And the more we grow in wisdom, the more we pray effectively. And what does it mean to pray effectively? It does not so much have to do with outcomes as it does to move us from our own self-centeredness and tendency toward self-will and align us with God’s good and perfect will. St. James writes very insightfully about prayer. In James 4:2-4, he writes:
“You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
The point he is making about prayer, though he used extreme examples, is that God is seeking something deeper from us than our common desires. In this example these desires are worldly and not all in keeping with God’s will. However, even if our sincere desire is to have loved ones healed we are missing the point of prayer if that is all that it is about. James also says:
“…the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).
This does not guarantee that God will answer our prayers the way we want Him to, but it does mean that we will see the truth more clearly and thus learn to accept outcomes in this world, good or bad, with the “peace of soul and firm conviction that God’s will governs all.”[i]
We don’t want bad things to happen but because of our free will, poor choices at times, and our sinful mortal condition, they will. That does not mean God doesn’t love us. Jesus defeated sin and death and we live in the state of tension between the victory won and that yet to be won when Christ comes again and restores all as it was meant to be.[ii] Prayer helps us to accept this truth by faith and grace and know more and more of peace and joy in all circumstances as St. Paul did (Philippians 4:11). God promises us a final victory over evil one day and a life with Him in paradise but not on this side of the grave.
We shouldn’t measure prayer by worldly outcomes. That is why praying in this manner, even sincerely, is a pathway to a potential loss of faith. When we pray to God for outcomes and they don’t turn out the way we wish, it is tempting to think God did not respond to us. Unfortunately, this is how people sometimes understand prayer despite the fact it is never taught that way by Christ, or in the Bible in general, or by the Holy Fathers and other writings of our Church. Jesus said many times in many different ways that in this world we will face trouble but don’t worry. He overcame the world and whatever tribulations we face here are brief compared to an eternity with Him if we have faith (John 16:33). Admittedly, this can be very difficult sometimes but prayer helps us know and accept this truth with a peace of heart and mind.
It is also much more important to be consistent in prayer and let persistence be a by-product of this consistency. Jesus always found time for prayer. All of our great spiritual teachers from the Apostles to the Holy Fathers found time for prayer. Monks live by a rule of prayer in which they pray throughout the day at certain times.
A good model for us, and one that is exemplified by many great spiritual teachers, is a rule of prayer in which we pray in the morning when we get up and the evening before we go to bed. I have found this model passed down through the ages to be the best one for me. In the morning, while my mind is fresh and unencumbered by the day’s events to come, I pray the morning prayers recommended in the Orthodox Study Bible. This consists of the Trisagion prayers, a prayer to the Holy Trinity, and the Nicene Creed followed by the daily readings of our Church to include the saints of the day, a Psalm, and the Epistle and the Gospel. After the readings, I pray a series of petitions for the Church, world rulers, clergy, friends, family and those in need and then whatever is on my mind. I close with a beautiful prayer by Metropolitan Drizdov Philaret of Moscow for the beginning of the day, a prayer to Theotokos and a benediction. In the evening I either read a brief prayer before I go to sleep or pray the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” repetitively as I drift off to sleep. The Jesus Prayer is an ancient meditative prayer that is meant to draw the deepest part of ourselves, the nous or heart, to Christ.
You can pray however you wish, but I have found that adopting a consistent rule of prayer and consistent prayers within this rule of prayer has brought me closer and closer to God. I know because of my prayer life, beyond a shadow of a doubt, any good thing that I am or do is because of my relationship with Him. We all should do our best to adopt a consistent prayer life so we can experience the love and grace of God in ever increasing measure.
This article as original published in The National Herald Religion and Spirituality Special Issue November 28, 2015.
[i] Metropolitan Drizdov Philaret of Moscow.
[ii] Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms, Thomas Nelson, 1993, pp. 246-247