As far as I have been able to discern, there are two main reasons to pray: 1) To enjoy intimacy with God by communicating with Him, and 2) To seek God’s help with a problem, need or desire that is beyond the means of the person who prays.
The first category covers a great deal of ground, but it is the second part that presents all kinds of problems involving faith and theology.
Scripture admonishes us to pray persistently, with an attitude of confidence in God. The Bible seems to tell us that if we pray for something and believe God will do it for us, then it will be ours (Mark 11:23). But then all sorts of caveats are set up. The prayer must be prayed with the proper motives (James 4:3); the prayer may have to be repeated many times (Luke 18:1-8); the prayer has to be aligned with God’s will (1 John 5:14); the supplicant must pray in the name of Jesus (John 14:14). I am still not sure what this last part means, but I’m sure it doesn’t mean simply tacking on an “in Jesus’s name, Amen” to the end of the prayer.
There seem to be some real contradictions in the Bible’s many guidelines on prayer. Some people have taken Scriptures like Mark 11:23 and developed a philosophy about prayer around them that handily ignores other passages. An example of this is the “Name it and Claim it” crowd. If you ask them, they will tell you that if you really believe God will give you that dream job, He will. So the arrangement is simple and desirable: All you have to do is to ask for what you want and banish all doubt. Then God looks down and says, “Wow, that guy believes completely that I’m going to do this for him. He hasn’t the slightest doubt that it’s going to happen. I guess I have to do it for him.” In light of 1 John 5:14, this philosophy looks a lot like a violation of God’s sovereignty.
God has the final say in every situation, and rightly so, because He alone has unlimited knowledge and wisdom. But that’s not the end of the matter. There is clear scriptural support for the notion that prayer can actually move God to change course. In Exodus 32, when the Israelites fashioned a golden calf to worship while Moses was on the mountain receiving the tablets, God told Moses, “Now leave me alone, so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:10). But Moses had the courage to ask God to stay His hand, and God did as Moses asked.
Prayer is a great mystery. There is no equation, no formula. It can’t be graphed, quantified or even fully understood. The Bible tells us to cry out to God in supplication when we are in distress, but Scripture’s guarantees are vague; we are assured God will answer and deliver His people out of their troubles, but if we place those statements in their historic context, the “deliverance” is often accompanied by bloodshed, severe loss of property and even death. Nevertheless, the Lord promises that He is concerned about our troubles; He inclines His ear to the cry of the righteous (Psalm 34:15); He listens to the prayers of the broken and contrite (Psalm 51:17). He pays special attention to the poor, widows, and the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). He is the original advocate for the underdog. We are assured that He is a rock, a fortress and a deliverer to His people. Here again, we seem to be getting mixed messages. He provides help, material and otherwise, to the poor and beset, but there is no hard-and-fast rule about what we can expect God to do for whom.
In all this, we can rest in the knowledge that no out-and-out catastrophe will befall God’s children. But there’s the rub. There is a huge grey area between catastrophe and Utopia. God allows some people to go through tremendous pain and anguish: the loss of a spouse or a child, severe hardship or debilitating injuries. Just ask Joni Eareckson Tada, who, as a bright, bubbly 17-year-old, had a simple diving accident and was paralyzed from the neck down. She has been in a wheelchair since 1967. God even lets some of His own die prematurely. The only straightforward assurance seems to be that God will be with his children through it all, tend to their spirits, and, after all has been said and done, bring them home in the end.
After having delved here into the issue of prayer, I have to conclude that the two main purposes of prayer can perhaps be boiled down to one: relationship. When we pray to God in our distress, God hears and responds. And even though we may well see no discernible difference in our material affairs, God is at work, teaching us to trust Him, showing us His love and concern in unexpected ways. No matter the pain and loss in our lives, in the end God has the last word. The climactic scene for everyone who loves and trusts Him will be the picture presented in Revelation 21:3-4:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”