“Why pray?”—a common question of those who don’t listen to God.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 August

When you’re dealing with children or newbies, at some point they’re gonna have this question. (If they never do… well I’ll get to that in a moment.)

CHILD. “Got a question.”
ADULT. “Fire away.”
CHILD. “God can read my mind, right?”
ADULT. “Yep.”
CHILD. “Like everything in my mind? Everything I want? Everything I think I want, and everything I really, deep down, won’t even admit to myself I really want?”
ADULT. “Wow, that’s really astute of you to recognize you have secret inner desires.”
CHILD. “I’m young, not stupid. So he knows all that?”
ADULT. “Yep.”
CHILD. “So why do I need to tell him that?”

There’s also the related question of, “Why should I ask God for things to happen when he’s already set the future?” In general, the question is, “Why pray at all?”

Christians have come up with a number of answers to these questions. I’ve heard ’em all my life. We actually think they’re good answers. But all of them utterly miss something: Why is this child or newbie asking this question?

Does a child ever ask, “What’s the point in asking Mom for things?” Rarely. They might, if Mom is mentally ill and her only responses to requests are toxic and terrifying. If they gotta defend themselves every time they make the mistake of reaching out to their mother, they’re quickly gonna learn this is a bad idea. But clearly that’s not what’s happening with God! He doesn’t respond to our prayers by smiting us.

So… how is he responding to their prayers, if they’re now coming to us with the question, “Why pray at all?”

To me, the only reasonable explanation is they don’t think he is responding. That’s why they have questions about the purpose of prayer: They can’t hear God.

’Cause nobody taught ’em to.

I mean they could hear God, if they listened. But they don’t. Nobody taught ’em how to. Nobody taught them they’re meant to. Nobody taught ’em that listening is a significant part of prayer. Basically, nobody taught ’em about prayer, and figured they’d pick it up by osmosis.

Well they didn’t, so now they believe prayer is unidirectional: We talk to God, apologize for all our sins, tell him all our hopes and frustrations and wishes and requests, say amen… and get back nothing. Absolutely nothing. No sign anyone heard us; no sign there’s anyone out there at all. May as well have spoken to one of our toys. At least the ones with the pull cords can talk back.

See, if you’re speaking with someone who speaks back, you never ask the question, “What’s the point?” The point is obvious. It’s self-evident. You tell them stuff, they tell you stuff.

Children never ask, “Why ask Mom for stuff when she already knows the future?” I’m not being facetious; to some degree Mom does know the future. She knows—all things being equal—the kids are going to school tomorrow; that violin lessons are Monday, swim class is Tuesday, tae kwon do is Wednesday, there’s a play date on Thursday, Friday you’re gonna stay home and watch movies, and Saturday the family is going to the lake. And you wanna go to Six Flags instead of the lake, and despite Mom predetermining the future, you wanna take a shot at changing her mind. Because you figure you know her well enough to have some kind of pull. Or you’ve discovered you can actually break her, if you just whine long enough.

Likewise people who have conversations with God, never ask, “Why make prayer requests?” We know why to make prayer requests. Sometimes God answers yes! Sometimes no. Sometimes he tells us why not, and it’s a valuable teaching moment. Other times we just gotta trust him. But interacting with him grows us as people, develops our spiritual maturity, and in many ways is its own reward. And sometimes, like I said, he also answers yes.

But if you aren’t aware God says anything, of course you’re gonna have questions. As you should! Something’s wrong. Let’s fix that.

Years ago when I taught at a Christian elementary, a student asked me why people should even bother to pray, I didn’t give her any of the usual popular clichés about “Well God really appreciates it when we make an effort.” Because that’s hogwash anyway. He wants to interact!

ME. “Are you not talking to God anymore, and that’s why you’re asking me instead of asking him?”
SHE. “What?—I’m still talking to God. I’m still praying.”
ME. “Good. But why are you asking me about him, when it’s way easier to just ask him yourself? Are you embarrassed to ask him? You shouldn’t be.”
SHE. “No, I’m not embarrassed.”
ME. “Are you afraid he won’t give you a straight answer?”
SHE. “He doesn’t give me answers.”
ME. “He’s not talking to you?”
SHE. “No!”
ME. “Are you giving him time to?”
SHE. “What do you mean, ‘time to’?”
ME. “You know—you say something, then you pause while he says something…”
SHE. “I don’t talk to God like that.”
ME. “Well there’s your problem right there. You don’t let him get a word in edgewise.”
SHE. “You act as if he talks back to you just like any other person.”
ME. “Because he does. If you let him.”

She stared at me as if I had just told her I believed in space aliens. Which is pretty typical when you’ve never heard anything like this before. But it’s entirely possible. In cessationist churches they never talk about God talking back—at least, not when anyone in church leadership is around. Because these churches claim God stopped talking to people long ago, back in bible times. And the only thing he does nowadays—at the very most—is somehow give you a strong feeling about which bible passage to turn to. Otherwise we’re getting nothing; he’s forsaken us till we die and see him in paradise, or maybe at the rapture.

Just in case any of the other kids were having the same difficulty, I used our morning prayer time to teach ’em how to meditate. Told ’em to listen for the Holy Spirit, pay attention to anything he said, and double-check it against scripture and fellow Christians. Hearing God came easy to most of them. Others needed to work on it. Which is fine! Work on that patience.

But once you hear him, you stop asking “Why pray?” You know why: You’re talking with the Almighty. Not just at him; with him.

Hence, those who never ask the question.

Years ago, at a previous church, they held a seminar series for new parents about training up one’s kids to be Christian. How to teach the kids the basics of the faith. And no doubt there were a few parents, or soon-to-be parents, who never learned the basics of the faith for themselves, so this was mighty useful to them as well.

Among the subjects was questions kids might have about God, and no doubt “Why pray?” was one of those questions. And plenty of Christians have the answer to “Why pray?” memorized, and are just itching to use it on children and newbies. Well, slap some calamine lotion on that itch: Teach your kids to hear God. That’s way more useful than some canned answer.

If you teach your kids to hear God, they’re never gonna ask the “Why pray?” question. Which is great! God showed ’em why.

If they still have the question later, it means they’re either not praying, or they have some problematic ideas about how to hear God. Those are much more pressing problems, and I hope you deal with them instead of thinking, “Oh cool, now I get to use my canned answer on somebody!” Nah; most of those answers are lame anyway. Especially in comparison to actual God-experiences.