The Purpose of Prayer

When prayers don’t seem to work, and we doubt God, what do we do?

A few days ago, our family dog, Serena, found wrapped chocolates that my sons had left in their bedroom. Within minutes, truffles, peppermint patties, and a host of other delectables were gone. The same day, close friends visited from northern Virginia. The chocolate and excitement were too much for Serena, and she couldn’t go to sleep. Instead of sleeping, she barked and barked and barked.

Serena’s barking, whimpering, and fussing doesn’t bother me; I can fall asleep and stay asleep through a thunderstorm. My poor wife, Nancy, cannot. She laid awake for hours, counting her breaths, praying, and doing everything else she could to get some badly needed rest. It worked off and on. Serena napped, but at 0300, she started up again. I woke up. When I heard Serena’s caterwauling, and Nancy’s sleepless report, I fumed.

Then I prayed. Praying through a fog of sleepiness probably is not the most effective way to talk to God, and the more I prayed, the louder Serena barked. Nancy’s head began to ache. I got angrier and angrier.

“God, give my wife a little sleep. Make that dog stop!”

Nothing worked. Serena quieted for a moment, raising our hopes, and then barked even louder a few minutes later.

Bark – Quiet – Bark – Quiet – Bark…over and over again.

“Why don’t prayers ever work?” I complained, though even half asleep I knew that my question was ridiculous. “God, give my wife a little sleep. Make that dog stop!”

My sleepy haze was gone now, but I still steamed. God put a question into my head,

“What is the purpose of prayer?”

“To get what you need, like sleep!” I answered, feeling half desperate and 90% irritated. I was in no mood for theology. Moments passed. “No,” I continued, laughing at myself for my dumb answer and feeling the release that comes from a good chuckle.

“The purpose of prayer is to encounter God.” I spoke to the Lord, “to be more like You.” My theology was improving, but Serena’s barking wasn’t. I kept praying.

“Lord, let Nancy and I move deeply into your love.”

When my goal is to get what I want, whether money, power, or even sleep, prayer works occasionally.

When my goal is to encounter the Lord of Creation, the Lover of My Soul, prayer works every time. Whether I feel close to God or far away, He is near. Whether I get a glimpse of glory and a scent of heaven or whether all I see is shadows and all I smell is stale, His presence pervades my world.

Then again, maybe the problem is that we don’t have the right goal. If our hearts long for the creation, we are always disappointed. If our hearts long for our Creator, we are never thwarted.

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desire of your heart (Psalms 37:4)”

Moments later, Nancy had the idea to take Serena into my warm study where the dog could sleep on the pillows where she loves to rest during the day. Nancy slept on the couch in the study next to Serena. Within minutes, all was quiet, and both were asleep.  

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Author: MD Harris Family Institute

MD, MPH, MBA, MDiv, PhD, ThM, DECBA Colonel, US Army (ret)

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