I often wonder what is the purpose of prayer. This is not a question of whether prayer moves the heart of God or whether he hears us when we pray. There are many clear passages about this in scripture and many examples of praying people who have seen God change the world through prayer. My question has not so much to do with whether we must pray, but rather whether prayer is necessary from the perspective of God. That is to say, does God need us to pray in order to bring about his purposes for the world? The short answer to that seems to be ‘Yes’. This article is an attempt to explain why this is so.
To answer why God would need people to pray in order to bring about his purposes we need both to go back to the beginning and to consider the ‘end’ of the world. When I use the word ‘end’ here I am referring to the eschatological destiny of the world (not the end of the world in terms of its destruction). In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). The earth was not yet ordered (Gen 1:2); it had to be structured into what it was intended to be, as the story of creation over six days testifies. Although the creation has been completed (Gen 2:1-2) it has an eschatological goal which has not yet been reached.
The eschatological goal of the creation can be expressed in a variety of ways. For example:
“But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
“When all things are subjected to him [Jesus], then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’” (Revelation 21:2-3).
The whole earth will be filled with the glory of God, the Father will receive all glory from his creation and God himself will dwell on the earth with humanity. When the kingdom of God is fully present all these things will be complete. All of these goals for creation began in Genesis, but they were not complete in the beginning.
When God first created human beings he created them in his image (Gen 1:26-27). Whatever it means to be the image of God, it comes with the responsibility of being a ruler of creation under the Creator. “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”” (Genesis 1:28). Because humans were created in the image of God with the responsibility to rule over the creation they are to share with God in bringing creation to its eschatological destiny.
Since God chose to create the world and the people who live in it, he has freely given up some of his other potential choices. There was no necessity for God to create the world. But now that he has made us he has chosen to give us a share in what he is doing. This choice means that if humanity does not co-operate with God then the world will not reach its appointed destiny. It is not that God is unable to make this happen without our prayers, but that having chosen to give humans authority over creation he now honours that choice. In this sense prayer is absolutely vital in order for creation to attain to its eschatological goal.
In order to share in the task of bringing the creation to its destiny, humans need to be in accord with their Creator. We do this through praying. We seek God in prayer so that he will bring about his kingdom in its fullness. Hence the Lord’s Prayer asks “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). As God’s co-regents we must agree with him in prayer in order that he will usher in his kingdom rule over all the earth, that is, so that the kingdom of God will come completely.
There is, however, a problem. Humanity do not desire what God himself desires. This is the result of our rebellion against our Creator and our refusal to live in accord with our created purpose. God needs the co-operation of humanity, because humans have been set above the creation as its carers and stewards. But humans do not naturally co-operate with their Creator, but rather do the opposite of what he desires. This does not necessarily stop people from praying, but those prayers are often self-centred and do not correspond to the will of God (James 4:3). If humanity will not seek the Creator for the kingdom of God to come in its fullness, then the creation can never enter into its destiny.
The good news (gospel) is that the Father has sent his own Son into the world as a human being. The incarnation is absolutely vital because without the person of Jesus there would be no human being who is truly in accord with the will of the Father. In his entire life Jesus did nothing but obey the Father. In his life and his prayers Jesus was fully in accord with God. In this way he is the human being in the image of God who reigns over the creation under the Father as humanity was created to reign. Now there is hope that creation can reach its eschatological destiny, because there is finally a human who fully co-operates with God’s plan for his creation.
Now the man Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of God, interceding for humanity (Rom 8:34). There he is in absolute accord with the Father in regard to the destiny of the creation. He is now seated at God’s right hand because he laid down his life in accord with the Father’s will (Matt 26:42; Phil 2:6-11). The heavenly intercession of the perfectly obedient human person Jesus is vital for the fulfilment of God’s plan for creation. Without this intercession creation could never reach its appointed goal. However, the Father desires many sons to fill the earth with his glory (Heb 2:10). Jesus the perfect intercessor is vital, but God desires more intercessors in order that the whole of creation would display the glory of God. This is where Christian prayer comes in.
As people who are ‘in Christ’ we share in what Jesus is doing. He is the one who intercedes for the world, and we also intercede for the world. Even believers can exhibit rebellion against God and not set their wills in accord with his. Yet, although sin is still present it does not reign over us. We have not been left as orphans (John 14:18). Instead the Father has granted his presence and sent us his Spirit to indwell those who are in Christ. In order that we might be able to intercede in accord with the will of God the Holy Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words (Rom 8:26). Now we are able to share in the intercession of Jesus because of the work of the Spirit. In this way the prayers of believers in the Spirit contribute to the arrival of the kingdom of God, that is, they help to bring about the eschatological destiny of creation.
So, there is a sense in which God actually needs believers to pray in accord with his will. Prayer is very important. We must not presume that the kingdom of God will come without our intercession. Prayer, then, is both a privilege and an awesome responsibility. As humans we have been given a task which includes seeking the will of God in prayer in order to bring creation to its appointed destiny. This is why prayer is so important.