What is the purpose of prayer?

Over the past year, I have prayed for several people fighting illnesses. A number of them did not make it. All were committed Christians. One, a pastor’s wife, shined God’s light into a great many lives. Upon hearing of her death, I remember thinking if God didn’t heal such a woman, what hope would I have were I in a similar situation. With each passing, I struggled with what felt like a combination of health anxiety and a faith crisis. Through time and prayer, I eventually moved through it. In recent days, however, the struggle has returned.

Last August Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim and Christian author and apologist, was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. As he proceeded to undergo radiation, with so many praying, things seemed hopeful. But recently he learned the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes and, while options are still being discussed, things are not looking great. I can’t begin to imagine what this must be like for him and others in similar battles. For myself, I feel all prayed out. A frustrating, panicky question has started to emerge in my mind—“why pray if God would say no?”

Yes, the attitude of prayer is guided by Jesus’ words “not my will, but Yours be done”. We try to maintain this attitude before God through all our prayers, but I wonder if we’re able to fully appreciate this attitude unless we are possibly going to our death. In these prayers, people are not asking for a job promotion, relationship, or certain conflict to work out; people are asking, begging God to not let them die. To let them live. What good is prayer if God would say no to that?

While attempting to navigate and struggle through this subject and its inherent sadness, probably not as much as so many others have and do, my thoughts gradually turned from “why pray if God would say no?” to “what is prayer’s overall purpose?”

As Jesus prepares to go to his own death, he tells his disciples in the upper room “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

We know this passage; we cite it often to God when we want something of Him. But is there more to it? Jesus’ comment here occurs between two segments of a larger conversation stream.

The first segment is a series of comments (John 14:9-12) wherein Jesus reveals he is the image of the Father (v9), is speaking the words of the Father (v10), and is doing the works of the Father (v10-11). And just as he is able to do these things because he abides in the Father, Jesus also goes on to say that after he leaves, whoever believes and abides in him will continue in his work (v12). The emphasis of these comments is on the Father’s salvation work being carried out on Earth through the Son, and those who continue to abide in him as his Church body.

So in v13 when Jesus says “whatever you ask in My name, that will I do”, it is on behalf of the Father’s salvation work being facilitated through Jesus that he answers those prayers—“so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”. God will answer our prayers in order to support his Christ-centered salvation work continued through the Body of Christ because they are how the Son now glorifies the Father.

The second segment is a series of comments (John 14:15-26) in which Jesus conveys that for the sake of living in holy behavior (v15), our lives are being immersed into a Trinitarian reality (v16-26); an existence that consists of living to glorify the Father by abiding in the Son through the operative power and guidance of his Holy Spirit. Participating in the Father’s work of exalting the Son requires a holiness born in the Spirit. The emphasis of these comments is on the Father’s sanctifying work being carried out through the Spirit within Christ’s Church body.

How is this related to Jesus’ preceding prayer instructions in John 14:13-14? The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is the Father’s answer to our prayerful requests to continue in His salvation work of exalting Christ. The purpose of praying and asking in Jesus’ name is to get us in on the Father’s salvation work in Christ by first getting us in on the Father’s sanctifying work in the Spirit.

Are we to petition God? Yes. Are we to ask God for provision? Yes. Are we to ask God for healing? Yes. Can we trust God? Yes. But over and beyond, the purpose of prayer is not as much about getting or being given something as it is about growing into and becoming someone. Prayer is a privilege given us to bring us into God’s abiding presence. We pray because prayer is formational; prayer shapes Christ in us. Prayer takes us beyond ourselves and plunges us deeply into the presence, perspective, and personhood of Christ.

How might this message edify or encourage? For the Christian believer who is nearing death, the one who still has years to live, or one who is all prayed out, Christ-exalting, Spirit-formed prayer expands our perceptions to see that the magnificent work of God fills a span of time whose vastness is far greater than that of our own years. The work of God is transcending history, transforming life, and ultimately, translating existence into Christ’s newness. God’s salvation and sanctifying work is never finished; it was ongoing before our birth and it will outlive us. Prayer places us into his work as participants, to become a people whose lives are conformed to Christ. And after our time is over, our prayers keep us connected to this work that is greater than ourselves, for a plea from our spirits to God’s Holy Spirit does not die with us; it continues on through the work for which it has pled.

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