"I should pray more." So many Christians live their lives with the sense that if only they could find time and discipline to pray more, it would solve their problems--with God, with others, with themselves. In their understanding, prayer may be a useful practice that invites God to participate in their activities and pleads with Him to act on behalf of the world, their loved ones, and themselves. Prayer gets things done. Prayer changes the world. Prayer changes God's mind.
But what if prayer is not useful at all? If "useful" is taken to mean a helpful means of accomplishing our own objectives and our own will--as in deciding ourselves what we need and begging God for it, because we think we know what is best for us--then prayer is certainly useless.
God cannot be manipulated to obtain our desires or achieve our goals. In Matthew 6:8 we are told that "Your Father knows what you need before you ask." Jesus teaches us that, rather than praying with many words, we should keep our prayer simple; he then teaches his disciples the Lord's Prayer. Romans 8:26-7 confirms that we humans don't really know how to pray and need help with prayer--and that the Spirit himself takes care of this need: "the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God." And, "the wind (the Spirit) goes wherever he pleases," as we learn in John 3:8. God is the one who reveals what is needed in prayer and, in fact, initiates the meeting.
Prayer is a loving encounter with God in relationship. We don't usually think of the love relationships--with spouse, with children, with friends--in our lives primarily in terms of their usefulness, as doing something for us. We may enjoy some benefits of friendship, or deeply love our spouse and children. Yet we do not treat them as if they exist primarily for our enjoyment and benefit. They are not useful.
It's the same with God. If we constantly approach him with a list of requests, we view God primarily as a powerful gift-giver, problem-solver, and need-filler in heaven who may help us if we ask for something. We view him as useful.
Those of us who sense a need for prayer have often experienced the joy of knowing God with us at some point in our lives. We remember how it feels to sense his presence, and we want more of Him. And this is the one sense in which prayer is useful: prayer isn't a way of receiving from God but of remaining in God. It isn't a means of achieving our desires, but of knowing His will and design for our lives. It's not a way of manipulating God, but of discerning God's voice and action in our lives.
Reflect: Think of a time in your life when your prayer was a way of being with God. Think of another time in your life when your prayer was a way of manipulating God. What does your prayer look like at this point in your life? Pray: Lord, I know you are here. I want to be with you right now. Be here with me.