In the last book he wrote, C.S. Lewis made this observation:
To confess our sins before God is certainly to tell Him what He knows much better than we. And also, any petition is a kind of telling. If it does not strictly exclude the principle that God knows our need, it at least seems to elicit His attention. Some traditional formulae make that implication very clear: “Hear us, good Lord” – … As if, though God does not need to be informed, He does need, and even rather frequently, to be reminded. But we cannot really believe that degrees of attention, and therefore of inattention, and therefore of something like forgetfulness, exist in the Divine mind. I assume that only God’s attention keeps me (or anything else) in existence at all.” (C. S. Lewis, Letters To Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 20.)
The question being posed by Lewis is the seeming contradiction between God’s attribute of omniscience, His knowledge of all conceivable things, and our praying to Him. After all, why do we have to inform God of what He already knows? I think this question rears its head often in Christians’ minds. Why “go through the motions?” What is God up to?
The answer Lewis supplies is that although God’s knowledge of us doesn’t change, “the quality of our being known can.” He explains what he means by adding, “By unveiling, by confessing our sins and ‘making known’ our requests, we assume the high rank of persons before Him. And He, becomes a Person to us” (Lewis, 20).
It is this very personal aspect of prayer which is so crucial but is so often overlooked or minimized. We rush to tell God of our troubles and our needs (or those of others), and in our hurry we neglect to contemplate just to Whom we come. This neglect of the Person of God, of God’s personal character, in large part accounts for our struggles with prayer.
If I may offer a scenario: Have we not found ourselves in a check-out line but in a hurry to get home or get to an event. We get to the conveyor and the lady at the register has to change the spool. More and more our impatience grows, and by the time we have slid our card and pressed out our pin number, our focus is all on ourselves, our shopping bags, and our state of urgency. And in our haste we do not give the person behind the register hardly any notice. We use them but we don’t pay attention to them.
Perhaps this scenario rings true with you? I introduce it to try to illustrate how we can pray to God without paying attention to God. We talk to God but we don’t really talk to God. Moreover, as Lewis stated above, prayer humanizes us when we come to our God in the right way. Therefore we might say, in our sojourn within this evil realm the Father has given us prayer to relate to Him in a living and dynamic way, so that in its practice we rise above what we otherwise would be as His children in the world.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us, “do not be like them [the world]; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8). He is speaking about transparency before God in contrast to the hypocritical practices of the religious leaders. This openness, this sincerity in our worship, is what God is looking for, and it is exemplified in the famous advice which follows:
Pray, then, in this way: “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. 10 ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” (Matt. 6:9-13)
The very first thing Jesus enjoins upon us in our prayer-lives is mindfulness. Mindfulness of to Whom it is we come. The first two lines of this prayer-outline center, not upon us or our predicaments and needs, but God Himself.
This brings us back to the question posed previously: if God knows what we need already, why pray? My answer to that particular question is this: prayer makes us what we ought to be in this world. It makes us actively dependent upon the Triune God. And that dependence, once coupled together with our love and appreciation for Him, lifts us up to a new dignity in ongoing relationship between us, the creature, and God our Creator.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.