What is the nature and purpose of prayer?

The Importance of Prayer

Everyone agrees that prayer should be an important part of every believer’s life. But prayer can be difficult at times, and many people wonder: why pray at all? After all, if God knows everything about us, we don’t tell God anything new by praying. Further, if we really need something, wouldn’t God—being wholly good—provide it, even if we didn’t ask for it in prayer? What, then, is the point of prayer?

This sentiment is not a new one; Christians have struggled with it for almost two thousand years. And ever since people have expressed this sentiment, theologians have wrestled with this question of “why pray?” Of course, it also brings up many other questions as well: what exactly is prayer? How should we pray? When should we pray? What does the Bible say about prayer?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, theologians have not had a unified voice in answering these questions. But they addressed these important questions in their own ways, and each has an insight worth considering. Here we’ll simply point to what some Christian theologians, from the 2nd century to the 20th, have said about the nature and purpose of prayer. They come from a variety of backgrounds and time periods. Some treat prayer directly, writing entire treatises on it. Others treat prayer tangentially, as a part of a bigger work.

  • At the Master's Feet by Sadhu Sundar Singh In At the Master’s Feet, Sadhu Sundar Singh addresses this question directly. He suggests that prayer is to “lay hold of God,” and that through prayer we discover the will of God. He writes that we cannot alter the will of God, but only come to discover God’s will for us.

  • Work of the Holy Spirit by Abraham Kuyper In the third volume of his Work of the Holy Spirit, Abraham Kuyper writes that prayer is a “longing, not for God’s gifts, but for God himself.” The point of prayer is communion with God, and this communion is made possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.

  • Treatise on the Love of God by St. Francis de Sales According to St. Francis de Sales, prayer is a “mystical theology,” that is, an intimate, secret communication between a soul and God.

  • Origen on Prayer by Origen In a very early treatise on prayer, Origen treats many objections to prayer. He argues for a Biblical conception of prayer, using frequent Scriptural citations to establish his claim.

  • Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount by St. Augustine In an essay on the Sermon on the Mount, St. Augustine argues that prayer “turn[s] our hearts” toward God, so that we are no longer inclined toward temporal things but toward God. Prayer thus properly orients us to God.

    Prayer Availeth Much by T. M. Anderson According to T. M. Anderson, prayer is a place of peace, where we receive the power of God to do the work of Christ.

  • Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that we do not change God through our prayers; rather, by praying, we “obtain what God has appointed.”

  • On Prayer by John Calvin According to Calvin, prayer is a kind of conversation between God and man.* But he goes on to say that the point of prayer is not for God, but for human beings—we are much the better for it.

  • A Short and Easy Method of Prayer by Madame Guyon The great benefit of prayer, according to Madame Guyon, is that it is a guide to perfection, and the means by which we expel vices and obtain virtue.

  • How to Pray by Reuben Torrey Torrey believes that the great importance of prayer is that it is God’s appointed way for us to obtain things, namely, mercy, grace in times of need, and the Holy Spirit.

Of course, there are many more books in the CCEL that address the importance, nature, and need of prayer. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of a few more worth consulting: Further reading: Written and compiled by Tim Perrine, CCEL Staff Writer