The Purpose of Prayer

Why pray? When prayers don’t seem to work, and we doubt God, what do we do? May we ask the Lord for a sign in prayer as Gideon did? Answers here about the Purpose of Prayer.

By Mark D. Harris

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.” 

The Purpose of Prayer

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

Is it OK to ask God for signs in prayer, like Gideon did long ago? If so, how do you do it? If not, how can you confirm God’s will?

“Fleece praying”, praying for God to provide a specific sign to confirm what He is commanding a person to do, is based on the story of Gideon, around 1100 BC (Judges 6:36-40).  The story does not condemn Gideon for asking for such a sign but Gideon’s request for a second sign was accompanied by a phrase, “do not let Thine anger burn against me”, that suggested that the Lord might be displeased with him.  The modern Christian must ask himself, “Is this what I should do in my prayers to the Lord, or not?”  We will examine the Bible to discover the answer to that question.

Deuteronomy 6:16 warned the Israelites “not to put the Lord their God to the test (נסה nacah – to test, put to the test, prove), as you tested Him at Massah.”  The story Moses referred to when writing this verse is found in Exodus 17.  The people of Israel, having repeatedly seen God work mighty miracles to save them from Pharaoh and provide them food and water, grumbled against Him when they camped, at His command, at Rephidim, a place without water.  They opposed their divinely appointed leader, Moses, and complained that he was going to kill them all through his negligence.  Moses commanded them not to test (נסה nacah) the Lord.

Isaiah 7 provides another instance where the question of “testing the Lord” comes up.  King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel had invaded Judah to force King Ahaz to join their alliance against Assyria.  The prophet Isaiah told Ahaz to trust God to deliver Judah and even to ask Him for a sign (אות ‘owth – omen, miracle) to confirm what Isaiah was telling Ahaz to do.  Ahaz disobeyed the prophet, replying “I will not ask, nor will I test (נסה nacah) the Lord.”  As sanctimonious as that sounds, Isaiah then told Ahaz that he was testing the patience of God and promised that he would receive a sign from the Lord anyway.

We next see the issue come up during the temptation of Jesus (ἐκπειράζω ekpeirazō – to put to proof God’s character and power).  Speaking in Greek, Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:16.

Repeatedly throughout the Lord’s ministry, the Jewish leaders sought signs from Him to support His claims.  In John 6, Jesus fed the 5,000, a spectacular miracle.  Nonetheless, immediately afterward the Jewish leaders asked for a sign (σημεῖον sēmeion – portent, miracle) to prove His claim (John 6:30-31). In Matthew 12:39, Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for seeking signs (σημεῖον sēmeion), but then promised the greatest sign of all, His resurrection.  All told, one wonders at their amazing refusal to believe, because throughout His earthly ministry He provided hundreds of signs.  How like the Israelites at Massah!  How like all of us today!

From this series of passages, we can reach important conclusions about whether or not “fleece praying” is appropriate for Christians today.  First, there is a difference between “testing” God to confirm His will and “testing” Him in rebellion and lack of faith when He has spoken or acted.  The former is what Gideon did; once God responded, he obeyed.  It is also what Isaiah told Ahaz to request.  The latter is what the Israelites at Massah did.  Therefore, the biblical record suggests that “fleece praying” is good, not bad, and should be encouraged in every age.  Every believer should pray specifically and expect God to answer and if they are unsure about the Lord’s will, they should ask for a sign.  This is not lack of faith but lack of clarity.  Once God answers, however, they must obey.  Failure to believe and obey when God has clearly spoken and acted, as we have seen throughout the Bible and into modern day, becomes נסה nacah, testing the Lord.

Conclusion

Overall, the Lord has offered us a mighty gift in prayer. Our fault is not in praying incorrectly, but in praying too little. Once we beseech Him more and more, we will see power and peace in our lives that we have never imagined. Prayer brings us to God, and He provides supernatural power for the work He has given us to do. 

I once asked God for a billion US dollars. (Actually, I asked more than once). When God finally responded, He said “Mark, why are you asking for so little?” I replied, “so little? I could do a lot of good with a billion dollars.” God answered, “You have Me, the Master and Creator of the universe. A billion dollars is less than trivial by comparison.”

If we want what the Creator can give us, we will often be disappointed. If we want the Creator, we will never go away empty-handed.

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