I have been grappling with a simple question about prayer. If God already knows everything that will happen and will act as He wills, why pray? If God's mind is already made up, why pray? I cannot confidently say that I have found all the answers. However, I have a few reflections that I would like to share.
God answers prayers, according to His will. Jesus says, in John 16:23, that whatever we ask the Father in Jesus' name, the Father will give us. What does it mean to ask the Father "in Jesus' name"? We say this phrase at the end of every prayer, but rarely pause to think about what it means.
Suppose you have a good friend who holds a very influential position in society. As a result of his or her influence, this friend holds sway with another person of influence from whom you require a considerable favour. Your good friend is likely to say, "go to my friend and tell him that I sent you. If you mention my name, he will give you whatever you want." In other words, whatever you ask in your friend's name, their friend will grant you.
Do you suppose this means that you will get every single thing you ask for in your friend's name? For instance, do you think asking for something that your friend is opposed to or is contrary to their will is included in your friend's promise? Isn't it implied, in your friend's words, that the phrase "whatever you ask", is qualified: that what you ask for in their name must be acceptable to your friend and not contrary to their will?
Thus, whether we pray for healing, a job, a child or a spouse, God will grant anything that we ask for in Jesus' name. Since we ask for it in Jesus' name, it will be given according to Jesus' will. It is not always easy to discern what Jesus' will is; therefore, many of our prayers will be answered differently from what we want or expect. Some of those disappointing answers will be relatively easy to accept; some will break our hearts and turn our lives upside down.
With this knowledge, many have asked, 'why pray?' Prayer is not just about 'asking'; it also involves praise, thanksgiving, and repentance. However, the 'asking' part is equally important; that is why Jesus includes it in the Lord's Prayer. We ask for ourselves, and we intercede for others too. But why should we ask, if God will do what He wills anyway? Do our prayers make a difference? Allow me to suggest the following reasons:
God as a Friend
We bring our petitions to God because He is a friend who wants to offer a listening ear. Prayer is an opportunity to approach a loving friend who is genuinely interested in what breaks our hearts and worries us. We carry our problems to our close friends and relatives, not because they can always bring the resolution we desire, but to build intimacy and to receive their comfort. God is the closest friend that we have. "Prayer is the channel of communication between our souls and God. God speaks to us through His word; we respond to Him through prayers, and He always listens to us." (EGW, Prayer)
Prayer strengthens our relationship with God. If you had a friend who only praised you and thanked you but never brought their burdens to you, you might begin to doubt the authenticity and depth of that relationship. In fact, in human friendship, the sharing of burdens signifies trust; that is why we refer to close friends as confidants. If we trust God, we will be moved to bring our sorrows to Him and ask for what we need. As we do so, we become more vulnerable before Him, and our friendship with Him grows deeper.
We bring our requests to God because, at that moment, we are linked with the infinite God. We enjoy the privilege of communing with the One who made us, speaking friend to friend. Jesus is our greatest confidant and friend; that is why we come to Him in prayer with our needs. Trials cause us to question the value of prayer because Satan's greatest desire is to keep us away from our best and most sympathising friend (Testimonies for the Church 5:200,201).
Thus, "we bring our petitions to Him because prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend. With our eye of faith, we will discern the very close presence of God, and we may obtain precious evidence of the divine love and care He has for us" (Gospel Workers, 34,35).
Prayer Brings Comfort
Why should we ask God for specific needs when He will do what He believes is best? We bring our petitions to God because the Bible teaches us to come 'boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in times of need' (Heb 4:16). We come boldly to the throne of grace, not because we will always get what we want, but because we will always receive grace to help us in our time of need.
When we bring those aches and deep requests to Him, we abide in Him and, like Mary, we feel at home at the feet of Jesus. The peace that is like a river, the indescribable peace, the peace that passes understanding in the face of trials, only comes at the feet of Jesus. Otherwise, we are left shouldering the burden alone, feeling the pressure to fix situations that we cannot heal.
Indeed, in Philippians, we learn that we should 'be anxious about nothing, but in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests made known to God' (Phil. 4:16). Paul does not conclude by saying that all those requests will be granted in the way we want. Instead, he assures us that 'the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus'.
We bring our burdens to Jesus because they are too heavy for us to bear alone. Jesus invites us to unburden on Him, and ask Him for help so that we do not carry the pressure of carrying our burdens alone and the pressure to 'fix things'. We were not created to bear such heavy burdens, and when we do not bring them to God, we are left carrying them on our own.