When it comes to prayer, how, what and who are questions we are used to answering. We fill up our lists with what or who to pray for; we ask friends how we can be praying for them… but when was the last time you asked why? For Christians, the answer to the question of why we pray is brilliantly multifaceted.
Prayer is not just a tool to address the what and how, it is the expression of a dynamic relationship with a God who invites to draw near, listen, speak and commune together. It’s this sacred relationship that comes to light as we ask the question, why can I be praying for you?
Here’s some of what scripture and followers of Jesus around the world have to say about why we pray:
When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), he invites them into his own understanding of the Father’s purposes. This is a foundational part of answering the ‘why’ of prayer: prayer draws us into the heart of God, rightly ordering us and aligning us to the kingdom. Here, we understand that prayer is as much about listening for what God is speaking as it is about what we ourselves speak.
Thandi Gamedze, who spoke at the Justice Conference events in 2022, says of the Lord’s Prayer: “It allows us to come face to face with what God's heart is and what following Jesus actually looks like as we're living on the earth today. And it forces us to come out of that prayer with clear mandates that we need to be concerned with, as Jesus followers.”
Psalm 62:8 encourages, “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” As we hand over our burdens and the ‘weight of the world’, pouring our hearts out in prayer, by the grace of God we move from debilitation to participation.
I love how the late Joel Edwards expressed this revitalising effect of prayer: “‘Thy Kingdom come’ leaves room for immense optimism, hope and energy to deal with intractable things that are happening right now. It is a fantastic prayer which doesn’t evade real practical issues or evil but it instils hope for the future as we live in the now.”
The Apostle Paul expresses this idea of releasing burdens through prayer, when he urges the church in Philippi not to be anxious about anything, but to present their requests to God (Philippians 4:6). In the middle of this well-known verse is an important verb: thanksgiving. When gratitude accompanies our prayers of petition, it roots our dependence on God – we are not self-sufficient! Because our faith is not in the outcomes of our prayers, but in God alone, we can truly “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Tim Keller writes about prayer being an opportunity to live in “quiet, amazed, thankful consciousness” of God’s upholding power: “[Ingratitude means] we not only rob God of the glory due him, but the assumption that we are keeping our lives going robs us of the joy and relief that constant gratitude to an all-powerful God brings.”
I recently listened to Stephen Oniwo, a ministry leader in Africa, share on why African Christians tend to approach prayer with great expectation. “It defines the whole concept of living by faith,” Oniwo shares. “The conditions are totally different from the western world. There are many issues in life for African Christians that we just have to rely on the Creator, we just have to believe God – for the next meal, the next shirt, school fees for your child. Because God is Father, God is provider – you have to believe him.” Even though the Lord knows what we need before we pray it (Matthew 6:8), we are still instructed to bring our every need before him in prayer, trusting expectantly that “God has surely listened and has heard my prayer” (Psalm 66:19).
To separate prayer and action, or lean too heavily on one over the other, is counterproductive and causes us to miss out on the fullness of being citizens of God’s kingdom on earth. Reflecting on her own experience of favouring prayer over action (and vice-versa) in formative moments of her faith, Linda Martindale (Cape Town-based Tearfund supporter and former communications officer with Micah Global) says: “Intercession has a bad rap in some circles... I have heard some strong responses to people committing to pray about something – “Don’t just pray, do something!” But when we come up against the spiritual forces of darkness that perpetuate poverty, injustice, division and all the nasties that go with these things, we dare not do it without intentional, committed, communal intercession. It’s not a ‘nice to have’ extra.”
The last few years have shown that the trajectory of global poverty is not set in stone. After decades of decline, the rates of global hunger and food insecurity are on the rise, driven by COVID, the climate crisis and conflict. To respectfully rephrase Martin Luther King Jnr, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but it is long. The faithful, kingdom-oriented pursuit of justice is a long game, and can be a wearying one. But as Elisama Daniel, director of Tearfund’s partner ACROSS in South Sudan, shares, “We have a God who is faithful. His faithfulness is not just for now, but it is from everlasting to everlasting. When we pray, it encourages us that this is not our work, it is God’s work; when we trust God, the Bible tells us that we shall not be put to shame.”
Bethany Hoang, director of the IJM Institute for Biblical Justice, writes: “The choice to pray, to ask of God, to listen for his voice, leads us to encounter hope that trumps our temptation to despair. In prayer we are reminded that decades and even centuries of injustice sometimes take great time and persevering work to reverse. And so we wait in prayer with hope. We keep asking God. We listen with great expectation.”
The choice to pray, to ask of God, to listen for his voice, leads us to encounter hope that trumps our temptation to despair.
Part of the persevering power of prayer comes through the way it unites followers of Christ. We won’t always witness the outcomes we pray for, yet together with others praying and seeking for the same end, we experience shared stewardship and the blessing of being part of a body that traverses geography and generation (see Hebrews 11)!
In prayer, we unite with our brothers and sisters – both locally and globally – to seek the Lord, to rejoice and lament, to participate together in living out God’s kingdom. Jesus invites us to begin our prayers addressing God as ‘Our Father’. We pray as members of one family (Ephesians 3:14-15), and as we focus on Christ and earnestly coming before God, we begin to move from me into we. The differences that keep us apart begin to drop away. Faced alone, the world’s problems seem insurmountable. But we are not alone. We are made for connection, and that connection has power: ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them’ (Matthew 18:20).
Lungi Nyathi, CEO of Alignd, a company seeking to rebuild healthcare systems in Africa, and part of the leadership of 24/7 Prayer in South Africa and internationally, suggests that Romans 8 gives powerful insight to the relationship between prayer, mission and justice. “The solutions that the groaning world is waiting for are hidden in us taking our place as children of God. I think we don’t fully understand the authority and the responsibility that we have, being called children of God: it’s not just for us to enjoy being children of God; it is for us to help the world come out of the space that it’s in.” When we pray, we join God’s own prayer through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26), putting words not only to the groans of creation and humanity but also to the freedom and hope that is in Christ.
Join us over the weeks leading up to Easter to reflect, pray and connect as we follow Jesus into prayer and justice.
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