Understanding the Purposes of Prayer
If you want to grow in your prayer life, there are a few basic principles about prayer that are good to know. A simple understanding of these truths can keep us on the right focus with prayer. The first one that is good to know is why do we pray? What is its purpose?
There are two primary purposes for prayer.
Grow a Relationship.
The primary reason for prayer is to grow what Alvin VanderGriend calls “the most important love relationship in my life.” God simply wants us to know Him. He wants to be in communion with us. He wants to talk to us, to have us share our hearts with Him.
When you are in a human relationship, it will not grow without regular communication. If you do not spend time with each other, talk to each other, share what’s on your hearts and minds, then that relationship will go nowhere.
So it is with God. If we are to develop a relationship with Him, prayer becomes central. If we do not spend time with Him, if we do not talk to Him, if we do not listen to Him, we have no relationship. We can know about God by reading the Bible, but we cannot know God without prayer.
“You will seek me and find me,” says God, “when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). To build this relationship we must take on the attitude of a seeker: I am not going to give up until I meet God.
Jesus Himself should be our model. He both needed and desired time alone with God. Verse after verse tells us that He rose up early or spent all night talking with the Father. He received strength and counsel, direction and purpose from those times.
They were so important to Him that Luke tells us that in the week leading up to His crucifixion, “Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives” (Luke 21:37). What did He do there? Spent time with God.
Release God’s will.
The second major purpose for prayer is that it releases God’s will on earth. While I cannot explain how it works, somehow, in God’s sovereign plan, He has chosen to accomplish certain aspects of His will only if people pray. Some believers cringe at this teaching. “What do you mean it releases God’s will?” they say. “God’s will is God’s will. He’s going to do it whether we pray or not.” But Scripture, Christians of the past centuries, and experience all tell us otherwise.
I once had a good Calvinist-leaning pastor, explain what happens using this illustration:
Imagine your hand opening represents God’s will being released. And the muscles and tendons of your arm are your prayers. But God is the brain. So what is opening your hand? God is! When we pray, God takes those prayers and moves the “muscles and tendons” to release His will! It is one of the marvelous ways God uses us to move and shape His kingdom on earth and thus allows us to partner with Him.
Support from Scripture
Look at Elijah. James tells us, “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17-18).
First Kings 17 and 18 gives us the story of these two verses. God apparently put in Elijah’s heart to pray that it wouldn’t rain. The prophet went to King Ahab and declared it wouldn’t rain for three years—and it didn’t.
“After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: ‘Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land’” (1 Kings 18:1). What follows is the incredible showdown between Elijah and the true God and the false prophets of Baal. Following a decisive victory, Elijah said to the king, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain” (18:41). Then Scripture tells us, Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees [signifying intense prayer].
“Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.
“There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”
The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’” Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, [and] a heavy rain came on. (1 Kings 18:42-45)
Did you notice the sequence? God planted a thought in Elijah—pray for no rain—then His will was released. He sent word again—I’m going to send rain. Yet somehow Elijah knew to pray fervently for it to happen. Again, God’s will was released.
My point? If you want to grow in your personal prayer life, then I encourage you to pay attention to both purposes of prayer when you pray. Yes, we pray to develop our relationship with God, but we also release God’s will in our sphere of influence as we pray what is on his heart for people and situations around us.
Remember also that the two purposes work together. As we grow in relationship with God, our heart more and more desires His will over our desires. So when we pray, we seek Him to know what we should pray. And He answers that!
For More Reading
If you want to read further on this topic we recommend The Power of Personal Prayer by Jonathan Graf. Available in e-book or print formats wherever you order your Christian books. If you buy this title at our online store, use love2pray at checkout and save $2.00.