The Necessity of Prayer
The term “need” denotes not just what someone merely craves, but something that is vital to someone. It is remarkable how often this is forgotten, though not surprising. In a mass media age, we are solicited from every corner, being told what our wants and needs should be (and especially from people unknown to us!). In the case of advertisements, it has been estimated that consumers are exposed to up to 5,000 a day. Advertisers know what the people want, but marketing is a field that is prone to overlooking what the person needs. God, on the contrary, is aware of needs at an individual level.
That being said, it is not enough to merely be appalled by these superficial distractions. Since prayer is a need and not only a craving, it is not something that one will necessarily find desirable at every turn. We forget what we need and remember that which we have no need for.
The Apostle Paul, though not specifically addressing prayer, expresses this dilemma in chapter seven of Romans: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
Prayer is something other than just “wanting to talk to God,” although there is room for that. Sometimes prayer must be done when one does not want to talk to God. What, then, is prayer? What is it that we are in need of?
It comes as no surprise that this is a labyrinth-of-a-topic to address from a Biblical perspective. When I searched the term “pray” in Bible Gateway’s keyword search, it rendered 316 results from the English Standard Version. However, there are signposts that can be referred to while waffling through the implications of this topic.
The first one that comes to mind is the Lord’s Prayer, as recorded in Matthew 7:
9b “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Notice how in verses 9-10 the focus is entirely on God, while verses 11-13 shift the focus onto man. That being said, the latter verses do not focus entirely on man, but rather, on the proper relation between man and God. In reality, something can be all about God (as all things ought to be) but nothing can ever truly be all about man. The important lesson here is that, whatever endeavors we might pursue in this life, we simply cannot distance ourselves from “the God who is there,” to borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer. If God is there in everything, we should never neglect His presence. What if in every moment of life, we thought to ourselves: “does this draw me closer to God?” This simple question, when taken seriously, will change a person’s life. Prayer reminds us of God’s omnipresence.
The Lutheran theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a chapter in The Cost of Discipleship titled “The Hiddenness of Prayer.” He made some interesting comments on the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, at one point remarking: “Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone…”
How interesting it is that our need for prayer is encapsulated in our need for God Himself! This truth ties in quite well with another verse about prayer, Philippians 4:6, which says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” How easy it is for prayers to turn into aspirations of control, especially when one is anxious.
In my own life, I have had times when I feared the outcomes of possible scenarios, which motivated me to beseech God. I think most people can relate to this, for future-oriented thinking is not a strange thing. But if this understanding is taken to its logical conclusion, it means that I am capable of changing the outcome of events in real time if and only if I decide to pray. However, if Bonhoeffer is right, then this understanding is wrong, for my main intention is one of controlling outcomes. So, it seems that prayer is not necessary for reasons relating to personal control. The focus should be on God only, no matter the circumstance that one prays about or within.
Or is it that simple? Our Lord and Savior Himself prayed when he was both anxious and wanted to control an outcome (see Luke 22:39-46). Christ was in psychological agony, even to the point of sweating blood. But surprisingly, he prays in verse 42: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” To say that prayer can distance oneself from anxiety is to suggest that prayer is evoked by anxiety. Jesus was a perfect man, so his prayers were also perfect, meaning that it is not always wrong to pray out of anxiousness, and it is not even always wrong to desire certain outcomes. What is wrong is to lose sight of the will of God in the midst of these things. From this we learn a comforting lesson, for Christ held fast to the will of the Father even in His darkest hour.
Paul says to pray without ceasing in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Prayer is, simply put, a response to the presence of God, and His omnipresence in particular. God is at the centre of prayer, and though He surely does care about our various requests and motives, those things should never overshadow God Himself. We need to pray because this practice is one of the most profound expressions of our need for God.
 Caitlin Johnson, “Cutting Through Advertising Clutter,” CBS News, 2006 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cutting-through-advertising-clutter/
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. 1937.