Christians believe that prayer–communicating with God–is a central part of one’s religious life. The Church teaches prayer by working through the relevant Biblical passages, the central text being the model prayer given by Our Lord in the Gospels: “Our Father” (see Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4).
Prayer can be a real struggle. Besides our own distractibility, we wonder if God really hears our prayers. If He does, how does He experience billions of simultaneous prayers? Do our prayers actually influence outcomes? Does prayer really matter?
It does. But sometimes it’s easy to think of prayer as “seeking to influence outcomes” as the main, if not only category of prayer. The English word itself–especially its old use: “I pray thee” for “I beg thee” or “I strongly ask”–implies asking as main connotation.
This is certainly merited. Biblically, prayer as petition is an important, even commanded, category. But it can also be the most difficult, the most disappointing, disillusioning, the most hesitating, shy, awkward, even angering category.
I think the petitioning aspect of prayer can be better framed, and less problematic if we remember that the Bible also includes adoration, confession, and thanksgiving as vital categories of prayer. C.S. Lewis argues that given these other categories, petition (or supplication), though important, is not necessarily the most important one. The other categories definitely help contextualize our petitions in ways that can dramatically help us with our disappointment.
The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. ‘Work’: as if it were magic, or a machine–something that functions automatically….(Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.) In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary–not necessarily the most important one–from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer” in The World’s Last Night: And other essays, 7.