One of the most curious facts about prayer is that we do it at all. Believers often overlook this fact because prayer is such an integral part of life that it’s just part of our mental furniture.
But prayer is not at all obvious to people who stand outside a religious tradition. I speak from experience here, having been raised with no church upbringing at all. I was never an atheist (not enough faith for that audacity) but I was somebody who believed that God was basically unknowable. I figured he was pretty busy, what with a whole universe to run, and that our puny little problems were our responsibility to figure out and solve. So, on principle, I didn’t pray when I was a teenager because it seemed to me sort of like the religious equivalent of going on the dole. I was a big believer in the American ethic of “God helps those who help themselves” and saw prayer as a sort of foxhole Christianity in which we human screwups tried to get God to clean up our messes for us.
I have, of course, learned since that this is not what prayer is about, but I think the motivation for not praying was not entirely ignoble and prideful. There are indeed times when prayer can act as a cover for irresponsibility and Jesus points this out (most famously in his story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 8:9-14)). What is curious, though, is that it is not the tax collector, screwup extraordinaire, who Jesus condemns. There’s not a word about his childishness in running to God to clean up the mess of his life. Instead, it is the very correct Pharisee who uses prayer as a cover for his irresponsibility. Note that he prays “to himself”. That’s the point. His highest responsibility is to the God who made him. But he makes no effort to offer himself back to God. He’s got it together. He’s not like that loser of a tax collector. He makes all the right moves and hits all the right marks. He doesn’t need anybody, including God.
Another curious paradox of prayer is that we pray to an omniscient God. Think about that. Not a few unbelievers find that to be prima facie evidence that Christianity is nonsensical rubbish, and it has, truth to tell, a certain prima facie appeal as an anti-Christian argument. What, after all, is the sense of telling an all-knowing God what you need? If you merely think of God as a Great Mind or a Vending Machine in the sky, then it’s not surprising if you conclude that (if there is a God) he knows everything and you don’t need to tell him anything. If you conceive of prayer primarily as the communication of information so that a job can get done, then why do it? Since the Central Control Unit already has access to the information, it does not need our input. So prayer appears to be an unnecessary hypothesis.
Jesus’ way is more subtle. He basically says, “God knows everything, so you can tell him anything.” Prayer is not about informing God of stuff he doesn’t know and then applying sufficient threats, begging, pleading and vanity-stroking to get him to answer. It is about revealing who you are to him and receiving his gift of himself through the creatures he has made.
That, by the way, is why Jesus also teaches us to be importunate in prayer. In short, he urges us to bug God and not give up. That, again, seems pretty weird if you are not a Christian. Why would God not just answer you the first time? Why make you keep coming back (sometimes for years) with the same seemingly fruitless prayer? It seems to the outsider like a mind game that is either being played on us by God or by ourselves.
But the problem of importunate prayer is really no different, in the long run, than the problem of prayer itself. God made us without us, says Augustine, but he does not save us without us. In the struggle of prayer, we don’t change God. He changes us. We find out who we really are as we go through the long process of learning how to die. We may start off saying we want to meet God face to face, but in the long battle of prayer we discover the truth spoken by C.S. Lewis: we cannot meet God face to face till we have faces. Every part of life, even the frustrating periods of waiting for something to happen (like Advent) get taken up in the human drama and offered to God, who uses it to change us into the image of his Son. They also pray who only stand and wait.