11 min read

Ask Us Anything 2: What's the point of prayer?

“Alexa, re-order paper towels” is not too far away from “God, let me do well on this test.” “Siri, play the Encanto soundtrack on Spotify” isn’t too far removed from “God, help me get this job.”
Ask Us Anything 2: What's the point of prayer?
Photo by Ivan Bandura / Unsplash

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
August 21, 2022
Scripture: Luke 11:1–13, Romans 8:26-27

It’s week two of our Ask Us Anything series. We’re spending these four weeks leaning into the hard and holy questions of life and faith, creating space for conversation, and giving you the chance to speak your deep wonderings into existence. This past week saw the death of theologian and writer Frederick Buechner at age 96, and this series makes me think of one of my favorite quotations of his. He said:

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.

And behind every doubt is a good question. If you’re asking questions, it means you’re alive, and your faith has a pulse. That’s the sort of faith we’re committed to cultivating here at The Local Church. We want to be a safe space to ask bold, curious questions where you discover you’re not alone and where we, together, get to journey deeper into the heart of God and discover the life that really is life.

As we mentioned last week, if you have a question you want to ask, you can do so at the website, askusanything.church.

The bad news is that we won’t get to all of the questions that have been asked before the series is over, but the good news is that we will continue to post responses as quickly as we can, even beyond the four weeks of this series. We want the website to be a place to house these good questions and holy conversations.

So before we get to this week’s questions, I want to remind us of our ground rules. We’re setting expectations and laying a foundation for this series. Here’s the first one.

These aren’t answers. These are responses.

That distinction is important. Theologians have been wrestling with many of these questions for a long time, so to say we’re going to answer them in twenty minutes or less would be foolish and arrogant. So these are responses — not answers.

Here’s number two:

This is one perspective, and you don’t have to agree.

We’re coming at this with a posture of humility. We might be wrong. And even though this is just one perspective, we’re going to try to also offer other perspectives and resources beyond this time each week. So know that this isn’t meant to be a period at the end of a sentence but a semicolon. We’re stepping into the middle of a conversation today that has been ongoing and will continue long past 11 am.

And finally, our third and final ground rule:

This is not about information; it’s about transformation.

We’re not just responding to these questions so that you leave here smarter, but we also hope that we can take this information and integrate it into our daily rhythms so that it all might, by God’s grace, transform how we live and move in the world. This is not a seminar; it’s a sermon, and it’s meant to transform us.

Okay, so here are this week’s questions, all variations on a theme:

How do we reconcile the instruction to “pray continuously” for what we want/need with the concept of simply praying for God’s will to be done?

And the next one is very similar:

What is the point of praying for specific things when we are supposed to just pray for God’s will to be done?

And finally, this one:

How do you explain the unanswered prayers of children, especially, who were born into situations that are extremely difficult?

Wow. Alright, let’s do this.

This week, I was talking with someone who told me how much she loved her Alexa. How many of you have an Alexa or something like it? A HomePod or a Google Home or an Amazon Echo? She said that one of her favorite things about her Alexa is that she could be elbows-deep in the sink doing dishes and then shout across the kitchen, “Alexa, add wheat Chex cereal to my grocery list.” And, like magic, not only does Alexa add it, but it also organizes all the items so that her shopping is more efficient when she’s at the store.

That’s what these smart speakers and virtual assistants do for us. They play Taylor Swift when we need to get into our feels. They set timers, give us the weather forecast, and let us know when it’s time to leave for our next meeting so we can expend that mental energy elsewhere. They’re the DJs for our personal dance parties, and they save the day when we need directions to get us from Point A to Point B.

And when we think about these first two questions about prayer, in particular — about asking for specific things vs. praying for God’s will — I wonder if, in some ways, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve been conditioned to think of God and the act of prayer as if we’re talking to a smart speaker. (And I’m not just talking about how they’re always listening to our conversations…)

But think about it: “Alexa, re-order paper towels” is not too far away from “God, let me do well on this test.” “Siri, play the Encanto soundtrack on Spotify” isn’t too far removed from “God, help me get this job.” In both instances, you’re making an ask and hoping (if not expecting) that you’ll get what you ask for—making a list of items for God to fulfill and hoping for a favorable outcome.

And Jesus doesn’t help the case here when he says:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9–10)

He’s pretty much just asking for it here, isn’t he? He’s setting himself up to be a cosmic vending machine in the sky wherein we insert our prayers, say a few magic words ending in “Amen,” and hope that what we asked for shows up on our doorstep no more than two days later. And then you find out, in many cases, that Amazon seems to be more reliable.

So what’s the deal? Is Jesus gaslighting us here?

Before we can get to these questions, we have to ask a different question — a question behind these questions.

“What’s the point of prayer?”

What’s it for? Why is it so vital to a life of faith? Because if we lean into these questions, I wonder if we discover a different way of thinking about prayer — beyond the cosmic vending machine.

Think back to Siri and Alexa and Google and notice a few things. First, notice that their place in our lives is purely transactional. You have a need. The need is met. Input data. Output response. And it’s amazing because the only job of these smart speakers (other than mining your personal data to then sell it to advertisers) is… to do whatever you tell them to do. I mean, Siri never comes back with, “Hey, can we talk? You never ask me what songs I want to listen to.”

But then contrast this with what Jesus says when the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray….” Here it is:

So he said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, may your name be revered as holy.
May your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:2–4)

This is where Jesus teaches the disciples what we know today to be The Lord’s Prayer. Each week, before we receive Communion, we join in heart and voice to utter these words aloud.

And more than a rote set of words to memorize, what Jesus is offering here is a format — a model for prayer. From the start, we get a sense of this: How does it begin? Notice the very first word:


This is from Luke’s gospel. Matthew’s version of this story begins with the more common “Our Father.” And what’s important to see is that there’s something personal — something intimate about this first word. “Father” implies a relationship. There’s connection inherent in using the familial name.

And then it continues:

“May your name be revered as holy.”

This is a declaration of who God is. Father, you are holy. In other words, you are set apart. Everything about you is just, is pure, is true. It implies there’s a knowledge about God that has been developed.

What comes next?

“May your kingdom come.”

Notice that it doesn’t begin with, “Here’s what I need… This is what I’m looking for out of this….” Instead, its first oriented in the other direction. This is about your kingdom coming to earth, God. And not only that, but it’s much more expansive than a me-and-God relationship. “Your kingdom come” implies an us-and-God orientation. Because it’s coming to the whole earth. Our gaze shifts outward.

We could go on here, but I want you to see that the point of prayer is not about transaction. It’s about relationship. About Communion with God. Prayer is an invitation to spend time with God. To enter into conversation — to listen and then respond. To meditate on what it means that God is holy. To contemplate how God’s kingdom is in-breaking in our midst and how we’re invited to be a part of it. Only then do we ask for our provision. It’s not one-sided like a smart speaker. In prayer, there’s space for God to speak and for us to respond. At its core, that’s prayer. It’s a conversation, and there’s an intimacy — a familiarity inherent because of that time spent together.

For example, think of any meaningful relationship you’ve had — a friendship, a family member, a spouse, or a partner. You got there because of a certain amount of intimacy and time spent together. It didn’t happen overnight. It took years of listening and responding. And then, over time, what happens?

You look back and realize that you’ve changed and that there’s a deep intimacy, a deep knowledge of the other. You get to the point where you can start finishing their sentences. You know the other so well that you don’t have to guess what they want to watch or what toppings they like on their pizza. You just know.

And the same is true of prayer. It’s how we develop that same relationship with God — and how God cultivates it with us.

Author and teacher Winfield Bevins, describing prayer, puts it like this:

Prayer is just meditating on God’s promises to us in Scripture. We matter-of-factly present our current situations to God in the light of God’s Word. And then we ask God to conform our desires, actions, and circumstances to God’s will.

In other words, the more time we spend in prayer, the more time we spend with God — here on Sunday mornings, reading and contemplating scripture, sitting with God in silence, paying attention to God’s heart in the wider world, gathering in beloved community and listening to the yearnings and hopes and dreams of friends and neighbors… it’s all prayer — and the more we do that, the more our desires, actions, and circumstances will align with God’s will and desire for the world.

So that when all is said and done, those things we desire — those things we pray for — are the same things God desires for us, our communities, and the world, too.

Those things for which we ask and seek and knock are in lock-step with God.

I think a lot about the prayer Bishop Young Jin Cho, retired United Methodist Bishop from Virginia, taught. He both prayed for people and situations and always ended with a prayer as simple as this:

“God, your will. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else.”

And as much as I’d like to leave it there, we still have to grapple with that third question:

How do you explain the unanswered prayers of children, especially, who were born into situations that are extremely difficult?

This gets into questions of what’s called theodicy, and we’ll have more to say about this in the coming weeks. But the short answer is, “I can’t.” I can’t explain it. I can’t explain why terrible, unjust things happen and why the prayers of children and so many others in unimaginable situations seemingly go unanswered.

But I can say that they’re not alone in those prayers. I think about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion, who prays to his father, “Lord, take this cup from me.” And still, he was mocked, tortured, and crucified. So I’ve got to believe that Jesus, too, knows what it’s like to be in those heartbreaking situations and to ask for something and have it not go your way.

I remember hearing of a pastor who stood up in the pulpit in the wake of another tragedy and prayed, “God, we have prayed and prayed and prayed, and nothing is changing. We are so tired. Do something.” And then he said, “Amen,” and sat down.

These questions, of course, raise more questions about God’s sovereignty and human free will. About what God can do and what we can’t — but also about what we can do. Because as those made in the image of God, we get to share in God’s love, share in God’s work, share in God’s justice in the world. And I believe that sometimes when we pray to God about horrible things, especially when we’re interceding, bringing our petitions and prayers, God’s response is, “Yeah, well, what do you think I put you there for?” With the gifts that God has given us, by God’s grace, we’re invited to become an answer to our very own prayers. Most often, God answers prayers not with a magic wand but through other human beings. It’s a chance to be open to how God might stir up courage and boldness in us to embody Christ’s love in the world.

Certainly, this isn’t possible in every situation and for every person — especially the most vulnerable. And this is one of those questions I’ll take with me to the other side. And I understand, too, that this answer may not feel sufficient — it’s more a roundabout way of saying, “I don’t know” than anything else. That it’s a mystery. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, “We see through a mirror dimly.” But what I do know — through my own prayer life — is that in situations of tragedy, God weeps when we weep. God’s not just shrugging God’s shoulders and saying, “Ah, well.” Instead, it pains God to see any child suffer. And I also know that even if my prayers aren’t answered the way I would like and in the amount of time I’d hoped for, God won’t leave them or us alone. Ever. There’s nowhere they can go where God is not.

God is always there — always with you, too, ready to welcome you into the relationship of prayer.

One of our ground rules, remember, was transformation over information. And that’s what prayer is all about. Prayer is not a smart speaker; prayer is about Communion with God. To be sure, it’s good to bring our prayers and petitions to God. They’re an expression of love of neighbor. They can clarify our desires, hopes, and dreams and represent an act of surrender, trusting that God hears them. It’s transformative in that respect. And whether it’s five minutes a day when you’ve just woken up or listening to today’s Bible reading on your way to work or school or showing up here, or taking a moment to breathe and reflect right before bed, the relationship cultivated in prayer transforms us. It changes us in ways we can’t on our own — all to better see God’s desire for us, our communities, and the world and then live it out.

So let us pray…