Sermon Preached by Greg Jones
"Why Do We Pray?"
March 7, 2010
Psalm 88

I remember well sitting in a hospital room with a man who had been diagnosed with cancer.  His doctors had told him that they did not know if he could be cured, but that radiation treatments and chemotherapy would probably extend his life.  They admitted that these treatments might have some unpleasant side effects, but these were the only real hope they could offer.  As Jim shared his prognosis with me, he said that his wife and grown children wanted him to give the treatments a chance, but he had decided not to go that route.  He said, "I just need to put this in God's hands."

My first thought was "He's giving up."  But as we talked further, it became apparent that he believed his decision demonstrated the depth of his faith.  He was going to refuse treatments, not because he was ready to check out of this world, but because he believed that if he showed ultimate trust in God's healing power, God would cure him

I mumbled a few sentences about how I believe God works through health professionals and medical advances before he cut me off.  He said, "That's what my family said, but that shows a lack of faith. I'll show you how having a firm faith can beat this."

A couple of months later, the disease was beginning to take its toll.  He said his family and friends were badgering him to go back to the doctor, but he was tired of listening to them.  Initially, he had been confident and defiant, but now he was apprehensive.  He said that he prayed to God several times each day for a cure, but his condition was worsening.  Jim even had a standing appointment with God each morning at 3:00 a.m. He would wake up and lie there in the dark, and pray for healing.  He said, "I pray earnestly for God to heal me, but it's not happening.  I must be doing something wrong."

He wondered if I thought that God might be punishing him for something he had done.  I reassured him that God is loving, and does not give people illnesses to punish them.  "Besides," I said, "if God did punish people by giving them terminal diseases, can't we both think of a number of people who would have made the list ahead of you?"

He admitted that he did not really think God was punishing him.  He thought that the real problem was that he simply was not praying correctly.  He seemed to believe that if he showed God how sincere he was and if he used the right combination of phrases, God would heal him.

That sad conversation kept rattling around in my brain until I realized what was bothering me.  On one hand, he said he believed in an all-powerful God who can do whatever needs to be done.  On the other hand, in his prayer life, he believed that he needed to tell God what to do.

Of course, he is not the only person who thinks this way.  Many people's idea of prayer is similar to a Saturday morning cartoon I watched as a child, where someone would rub the magic lantern and the genie would appear.  The person would order the genie to grant his wish, and the genie would obey.

Some of us acquired this same notion of prayer.  We pray, "Dear God, please give me an "A" on my exam.  Please find me a new job.  Please don't let my plane crash."

This sort of prayer attributes great power to God, and many believe that in this way they are honoring God, but it also shifts the control of the power to the one who prays.  God is not in control, but rather is supposed to obey the commands of the one who submits the order.1 The one who prays, says in effect: "God, here is what you need to do."  But that's troubling isn't it?  To think that God does not know what is needed until we spell it out.  Also troubling is the notion that God knows what needs to be done, but is waiting for us to ask sincerely?"

Theologian Michael Novak writes "One of the troubles with prayer is that many Christians have scarcely progressed beyond the habits of childhood.  They think that prayer means asking for things: for good weather, to find lost objects, or to make an important sale  The mode is 'gimme.'  The implicit worldview is 'magical.'  And the focus of attention is 'me.'"2

Many adults struggle with their prayer life today because that was the way they learned to pray as children, but when they became adults, they began to realize on some level that however God interacts with the world, God is neither a genie nor Santa Claus, and it makes no sense that a human being could order around the Creator of the cosmos.

Why do we pray?  Nearly everyone does it.  It is one of the truly universal practices.  Native American Indians prayed long before Christianity ever reached these shores.  Buddhists spin a prayer wheel.  Hindus meditate.  Muslims pray five times each day.  Christians learned about prayer from the Jews.  Some people bow their heads, some kneel, some put their hands in the air, some speak their prayers, others sing their prayers, but people everywhere pray.  Why?

I will highlight four important reasons.  1) We pray because we feel moved to say "wow," or "thank you.  The church calls these prayers of praise and thanksgiving.  2) We pray because we feel the urge to say, "I'm sorry, I can do better."  The church calls these prayers of confession. 3) We pray because we believe we need something.  The church calls these prayers of petition.  4) We pray because we believe someone else needs something.  The church calls these prayers of intercession.

The Book of Psalms is full of prayers.  We discover numerous prayers of praise and thanksgiving.  Psalm 8 begins, "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!"  Psalm 65 begins, "Praise is due to you, O God."  Psalm 75 says, "We give thanks to you, O God."

In a prayer of praise, we simply honor God for who God is.  We praise God for being the Creator of the universe; for being the beacon of light who shows us the way; for being a loving parent and a wise counselor. And prayers of praise very quickly spill over into prayers of thanksgiving.

Prayers of thanks are essential to the life of a Christian.  They express our gratitude for the gift of life and for everything God does.  Daily prayers of thanksgiving constantly remind us of the numerous blessings we enjoy, and as these prayers expand and intensify our gratitude, they actually alter the way we perceive reality.

A friend said that whenever she feels hurt, sad or angry, she finds a quiet place and writes on the top of a sheet of paper, 'I am thankful for' and then she starts writing down everything that comes to mind, large or small.  When she completes the list, she thanks God for each item and by the time she gets to the bottom, she feels a shift in her soul."  Saying prayers of thanksgiving every day of your life, whether you are on top of the mountain or in the darkest valley, will have a profound impact on who you become.

In the Hebrew Psalter, we also find prayers of confession.  One of the best known is Psalm 51, which begins, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions."  These days, many people shy away from prayers of confession.  They ask why the church wants them to think poorly of themselves. They feel as if they are constantly criticized in their daily lives and then they come to church on Sunday to get a boost and the church whacks them off at the knees: "You terrible sinner!"

However, the purpose of a prayer of confession is not to tell us that we are bad people who ought to carry a burden of guilt.  We need to remember that the first thing the Bible says about us is that we are created in the image of God.  We are God's children and God loves us.  The purpose of confession is to say, "But all is not as it should be with us."

How many days a week do you wear a mask and present an image of yourself that's not genuine?  Often we attempt to deceive others and sometimes we manage to deceive ourselves.  The purpose of confession is to come clean; to state as we did in this morning's confession, that we have done those things we ought not to have done and left undone those things we ought to have done."  It's a reminder that although we should feel good about ourselves, we should never feel fully content, because that's when we stop growing.  Life is much more exciting when we are striving to become the person God wants us to become. Life is more satisfying when we can say, "That's not good enough.  I can do better."

Today's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is a prayer of petition - the prayer we offer when we need something.  I chose Psalm 88, because it is not an easy prayer.  There are many psalms in which the psalmist prays for something, receives it, and then rejoices that God has met his need.  And had I chosen one of those, I could have concluded by saying that if you will just pray an earnest prayer, God will grant your desire.  Some may think that's what they want to hear, but I suspect most of you would recall the times you prayed for something worthy and your prayer was not answered.

That is why I chose Psalm 88.  The person praying makes a desperate plea to God, but his prayer goes unanswered.  Listen again, to a few of the verses: "O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.  For my soul is full of troubles...I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more...O Lord, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me?...I am desperate."

When you or a loved one has a terminal illness and you pray for healing, but the healing does not come, you may pray a desperate prayer such as Psalm 88.  And if you do, you'll be in good company.  Most followers of Christ have experienced times when God seemed absent from their lives.  Following her death, it was remarkable to learn that Mother Teresa, one of the most dedicated and self-sacrificing Christians of the 20th Century went through decades of feeling that God had disappeared.  Despite her faithful work caring for the world's poorest, her prayer life was dry and lonely, and she felt forsaken.  It's good to know that we're not alone if we feel the same way.

Prayers of praise and thanks, and prayers of confession are relatively easy to understand.  But when we pray because we need something, or because someone else needs something, it is much more challenging to our understanding of how God responds to prayer.  On one hand, we are uncomfortable with the idea that we can simply give orders and God will hop to it as we wish.  On the other hand, we know that we have many needs that we must take to God in prayer. Christ taught his disciples to ask things of God, and Christ himself asked.  Can we make sense of those prayers we pray because we need something or someone else needs something?  That is what I will address in my next sermon.



1. Marjorie Suchocki, In God's Presence, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996), p.16.

2. Quoted by Robert Nace, A Word Less Heard, (Hollis New Hampshire: Puritan Press, 2000), p.70.