Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what prayer is and how they can improve their prayer lives.
- Brian Hedges looked at John Owen on the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer.
- Today C. Walter wrote on the Lord’s Prayer.
- Chris wrote on the practice of private prayer.
- Chris writes on the practice of corporate prayer.
- Mike Boling wrote on four keys to a consistent and purposeful prayer life.
- David Dunham wrote on the importance of prayer in counseling.
- Matthew Fretwell wrote on three ways to improve your prayer life.
- Dave writes on prayer and the grace of God.
- Today Joey writes on the four functions of prayer.
As a youth pastor, I heard all sorts of superficial prayer requests. “Please pray for my cat” or “I just want this boy to ask me to the dance” or “I’ve got this test that I haven’t really studied for.” I don’t want to write off these prayer requests. I believe God loves to hear from every one of His children and He honors all these requests. After all, He did say, “Whatever you ask in my name…” (John 14:13-14). Another time we can discuss whether this Scripture applies to apostles or adolescent teens, for now I wish to hone in on the purpose of prayer.
You see, superficial purposes are not easily outgrown. Adult prayers can be pretty similar to adolescent prayers. Adults will pray to get something from God: money, a job, a guy or a girl. They pray to escape something: illness, impending danger or harm, or enemies. They pray to change something: That job they finally got. Or that person they finally married.
We all are prone to pray for superficial reasons. It’s because we lose track of God’s primary purposes for prayer. And I’m certainly not immune. Thankfully, God uses events in our lives to get us back on track to the primary purposes for prayer.
This happened to me. At a time when my prayer life became dry – wandering in what some call “the desert of the soul” – the Lord orchestrated events that realigned my prayer life. I got laid off. Through the process of having security ripped away and being thrust fully forward in faith, I rediscovered four purposes of prayer that had gone forgotten. These are not all the purposes of prayer; they are four significant ones. These too often get overlooked or crowded out on a daily basis by superficial purposes.
A Visible Demonstration of Our Union with Christ
Prayer is a remarkable spiritual discipline that serves as a visible symbol of our union with Christ. What do I mean by our union with Christ? Well, just think about all the times in Scripture where we see “in Christ”, “with Christ”, or “of Christ” referring to our relationship to Christ. The classic Scripture reference of this is 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…”
Our bond with Christ is critical. As Robert Letham said in his introduction to Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology: “Union with Christ is right at the center of the Christian doctrine of salvation.” Union with Christ not only signals salvation, but it signals the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. J. Todd Billings – describing what union with Christ entails in Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church – says: “It means that God’s Spirit is poured out to make the life and teaching of Jesus real to us. It implicates our worship, our vocation in the world, and our witness as the church.”
Quite possibly no text better illustrates Billings proposition than Galatians 4:6, where Paul explains that our union with Christ causes the work of the Spirit, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Thus every time we continue that cry of “Abba! Father!” we demonstrate not only the presence of the Holy Spirit but the union we have with our Creator through Christ.
Our cries to God declare utter helplessness and need for Him to interrupt our world. The Holy Spirit will only intercede for those who are united to Christ; only heirs see prayers answered. So when we need God to fix the mess and bring everything to rest, we can count on it because God united Himself to us – not the other way around by the way. John 3 makes God’s initiation of salvation and in turn union with Christ clear by the use of a series of “divine passives”, where the Greek word meaning “to beget” is clearly a passive term where the subject, God, initiates spiritual birth (cf. Jim Hamilton, God’s Indwelling Presence, 129).
Unites Christians to One Another
Prayer not only demonstrates our union with Christ. It unites us to one another. When we pray with the community of saints, hearing one another’s requests, we feel the burden of those requests. The weight of our corporate helplessness brings us together. It also stirs godly affections for one another.
When my friend tells me he has cancer and asks for prayer, I am bound to the pain he feels. I feel the weight of the world’s brokenness. I long for Christ’s return. My union with Christ stirs that longing and unites me to my friend. We pray for one another; we weep with one another; we continue ongoing care for one another.
God honors union with one another in prayer with His presence. Matthew 18:19-20 explains that when two of us agree about anything and ask it of God, our Father honors the request and is present in the request. This third class conditional sentence doesn’t indicate that we get what we want. No certainty about the outcome being favorable is guaranteed here (cf. Wallace, 696-697; BDF 373.2). Nonetheless, there is a lively hope for it (Robertson, 1016). If the outcome is favorable, it is only because our Father is present and providentially at work – where only He gets credit – in the situation.
So this doesn’t mean my friend’s cancer will be cured, it means that the presence of God will comfort us in the midst of pain. If it glorifies God most for the cancer to be cured, it will be cured. But it might glorify God most for my friend and I to suffer together – leaning upon God, who is present in the pain, looking to Christ, who suffered the full pain of death and the wrath of sin on the cross. Then my friend will experience the truest healing of all: being brought into the presence of the Lord to feel no more pain and experience no more of the world’s brokenness.
Furthermore, when I am in the ongoing practice of praying with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I will be less likely to sin against them. It is difficult to sin against someone with whom your heart is knit by prayer. And when I do sin against another, like in Matthew 18, I should come to that person and take that sin to the cross with them through prayer. This is James 5:16’s instruction to us: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Protects Christians from Satan and Sin
When we are knit to Christ and one another, we are in good company. But when we set aside prayer and give into idleness, we lower our guard and permit Satan and sin to work ruinous ways. Another key purpose of prayer is to protect us from Satan and sin.
Ephesians 6:10-17 reminds us to be armored up against our enemy. We are in the throes of a very real spiritual battle, day in and day out, with “spiritual forces of evil” that tempt us (Eph. 6:12). William Gurnall reminds us, “These wicked spirits do chiefly annoy the saints with, and provoke them to, spiritual wickedness” (182-183). I highly recommend you check out William Gurnall’s book The Christian in Complete Armour. It is an excellent treatment on spiritual warfare.
What must we do? Gurnall goes on to instruct us with the primary help of prayer: “Be earnest with God in prayer to move and order thy heart in its thoughts and desires” (185-186). When our minds dwell upon heavenly things (Col. 3:2), there is no room for the world to creep in.
This is how we keep on guard against Satan and sin. We devote ourselves to an enriching prayer life. Prayer must be upon our lips when temptation arrives (Eph. 6:18a). Otherwise, we will be swayed easily by temptation’s enticement.
And, in these prayers of protection, we don’t just appeal to God on our own behalf, we entreat the Lord for others too (Eph. 6:18b).
A Catalyst for Kingdom Building
The final purpose that I wish to emphasize is praying as a catalyst for kingdom building. I left this last because I want to leave you with this thought. There is a strong argument for God’s greatest purpose of prayer being that we would pray for the Lord to make a great harvest of souls through the gospel.
Read Isaiah 62:6-7:
On your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have set watchmen;
all the day and all the night
they shall never be silent.
You who put the LORD in remembrance,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it a praise in the earth.
The Lord wants us to restlessly pray for Him to establish His kingdom. Yep, that is a very New Testament, new covenant, rereading of that text. And I make no qualms about that.
Here’s why. “And he said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest” (Luke 10:2). Jesus told us to entreat the Lord to send out laborers so that the harvest might be reaped. What Jesus told the disciples is yet an echo of Isaiah 62.
And Paul, the man God sent to bring the gospel to the entire Mediterranean region, said this in Romans 10:1: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” Who is they? Israel (Rom. 9:30-33).
God’s plan will come full circle. The people God loved in the Old Testament, He still loves today, just as much as He loves all the Gentiles. That Jerusalem that God will establish is yet future. It’s a picture of heaven where all the Jews who are called by God and all the Gentiles who are called by God will dwell perpetually.
Our urgent desire should be to pray for the consummation of His kingdom. We should pray that God would establish His kingdom. Only He can do it; we must pray for it. We must pray for fruit from gospel proclamation and be faithful to proclaim the gospel as well.