Finding Hope in Prayer #WhyPray

Finding Hope in Prayer #WhyPray March 5, 2012
See below for a story about this photograph

So, I think I’m turning the corner. I think I’m finding a reason to pray.

Often what I do is write my way through problems, both spiritual and theological. That’s what I did in my very first book, and about half my books since have been in that same vein.

This book, Why Pray?, however, is the first that is attempting to solve what has become a vexing problem for me both spiritually and theologically. I have been struggling to find a reason to pray. And, thus, have been struggling to pray.

Every time I write about this, several will comment that prayer doesn’t need a reason. In fact, some commenters will imply that questions of this sort are unfaithful. Prayer is meant to be mysterious, they argue, and analysis of prayer ruins it.

I get it. They have a point. But I don’t think that looking for a rationale for prayer is unfaithful. I think it is faithfulness, at least for me. And I think that people like me — people with questions about the efficacy of prayer — deserve answers.

And, at least for me, I think I’m coming closer to an answer that will lead me back into prayer.

PS: You know that famous painting, above? Well, it’s not a painting. It’s a hand-colored photograph. Rhoda Nyberg, of Bovey, Minnesota, who colored her father’s photograph and then watched it become a best seller, died last week. From the article:

The man in “Grace” is Charles Wilden, an elderly peddler from nearby Grand Rapids. His serene face was captured at a studio table with a family Bible, a pair of eyeglasses, a loaf of bread, a knife and a bowl of gruel placed before him, his folded hands on his brow in prayer.

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  • Aunt Susan

    We received a print of “Grace” as a wedding present almost 49 years ago. It hung in our various kitchens or dining rooms for years. We keep most everything, but that is one wedding gift I think we don’t have anymore. I read Rhoda Nyberg’s obit with interest the other day because we always thought it was a painting –had no idea it was a colorized photo. I think it did influence the prayer life of us and our children to have that picture so visible for so many years — the humble simplicity of the man praying over such a basic meal.

  • ME

    Certainly wanting a reason to pray isn’t unfaithful. I wonder if you are putting the cart before the horse, though. If you really believe Jesus is who he said he was, I expect you’d have a lot less trouble wanting to pray. In a recent blog post you said you were an agnostic most days. From my own experience I know on those days it’s harder to pray. But, once I really came to believe it, really let myself fully believe Jesus is who he said he was, and the ramifications that come along with that, the desire to pray was much more natural and I didn’t need a “reason.” Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t pray enough, and I still don’t conform my will to God’s will like I should, but, that’s because I’m weak, not because there is no desire.

    If I’m way off base, my apologies.

  • Andrew Nyberg


    I don’t need to read you new book to find a reason to pray, you’ve just given me one. It is frightening to me to see how much FAITH you’ve lost. It equally scares me that someone who, as ME stated, is “an agnostic most days” and struggles to find a reason to communicate to his Creator and Father would write books for an audience that is looking for an authority on God. How can you be an authority on God if you don’t even believe in him most days.

    I don’t need a reason to pray to God, because you are my reason enough, and I am praying for you right now that you would find Him again, and that your career would become more about Him and less about you.

    Your Friend in Christ,


    • Andy, I fear that you are completely missing the point of my posts, and of my writing on this topic. Too bad.

      • Ben Hammond

        I’d agree with Tony here.

      • Looking forward to the book Tony. Specifically BECAUSE you are not writing as an authority on God.

    • It’s funny how “Your Friend in Christ” actually comes across like “You’re F**cked”.

      • Richard

        That made me chuckle – made me think of the irishman’s prayer in the battle scene in Braveheart: “The Lord tells me he can get me out of this but he’s pretty sure you’re f**ked”

  • Andrew Nyberg

    P.S. If you need a reason to pray, you can pray for me, and your other friends like me. For maybe if we’re all praying to God for each other, we can all come to know Him better.

  • Wandering Moose

    I understand your questions in prayer. I have always prayed but have recently have been enlightened with some new insight. My source for this enlightenment has been a book, Prayer, Karl Barth 50th Anniversary Edition with essays (Westminister John Knox Press, 2002). I admit that I am a Karl Barth fan, but I gained some insight in my understanding of prayer. I like the idea that we are co-creators with God and that we do have the freedom to voice with God through Christ. I do understand the mystery component to prayer that you cited by others, but often times we check out and feel overwhelmed by the mystery. If you are writing something, I encourage you to check this out and see if it helps in your effort.

  • Tony – I am really glad you are writing this book. I also appreciate that you are asking the question: “Why Pray?”

    Most Christians are afraid to ask such questions for fear of losing faith (which according to Andrew you appear to have done already). It’s like you can lose faith like you can lose your car keys. Amazing how some people think (or don’t think as is the case)… but I digress.

    It take real strength to ask the tough questions and prayer (for a Christian) is at the core of those questions.

  • I truly dislike what Christians have done to prayer. They ask God for specific outcomes, hoping that by ‘praying harder’ or ‘praying more’, they’ll twist God’s arm and he’ll have to spare them from things that have caused pain and suffering for millions of others since time began, and will continue to do so till the end of time.

    Some of the best thoughts on prayer I’ve found have come from Gandhi and Anne Lamott.

    “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
    ― Mahatma Gandhi

    I think prayer is more about awareness of God and reflection “The thing about light is that it really isn’t yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.” -Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

    • ME

      What you wrote makes me think of the importance of, “your will be done” in prayer. As Jesus prayed to the Father, please take this cup from me, nevertheless, “your will be done.”

      Or, as Francis of Assisi prayed, “Most High, glorious God, cast Your Light into the darkness of my heart… so that I may know and do Your holy and true command.”

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  • Stephen

    Praying affirms to me my need of connecting with God. We’re always told it’s just “talking to God”, which is really the truth I often forget. More and more these days I pray…when I’m doing the dishes, when I’m lying in bed, when I’m sitting at my computer…because I come face to face with my human limitations so often. Prayer is my affirmation that I live in relationship with the Creator and as the “created” I need Him. Does this sound too simplistic? Maybe it is.

  • Tony, love your honesty on this topic. And I really identify with it. Prayer for God to meet our needs is a paradox because God already cares and provides for us in both spiritual and tangible ways (though not often obvious ways). So why is asking for God to care and provide useful? Either he will, or he won’t, right? So there should be no reason for “special prayer” or prayers of special people, or massive prayer petitions, to sway God from one course of action to the other. It’s not like he’s taking a vote :!?

    I think Jesus told us to pray (“ask for anything and it will be given”) not as a contract with God (“if you’ll pray, I’ll answer”) but simply as a conversation starter (“Hey call me, let’s talk about it”).

    God is not Santa clause, or a robot, or a genii in a bottle. He’s wild and untamed, he’s passionate about his people, and compassionate about those in pain. He likes to answer prayers – meaning he likes to meet our needs in a way that is somehow connected to our requests — sometimes. It’s his free choice to do that if wants to, or not.

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  • Luke Allison


    Just a question, and this is me genuinely wondering: have you ever flirted with open theism or at least the idea that God’s action may be self-limiting to the extent that prayer is immensely important as a partnering action?

    Just wondering. I’ve been struggling with similar questions for a while (I grew up in a Word of Faith atmosphere), but have found OT more palatable in recent months. Particularly, I’m intrigued by Greg Boyd’s “Warfare Worldview”. Depending on our view of omniscience/omnipotence and the nature of God’s interaction with the world, prayer makes differing levels of sense.

    I’m coming to believe that it makes almost NO sense given a traditional Augustinian conception of God.

  • First, thanks.
    Second, I can relate.
    I find it interesting that one who has written so many books on prayer is asking why pray. I am unfamiliar with your various tomes, yet noting your heart for and work in spiritual formation (per your CV), I suspect you already know the answers.

    So perhaps you’re not really asking ‘why pray’…but, I suspect it is a genuine query. As I said, I can relate.

    If I may be so bold as to pass along a couple of thoughts from my current read, Prayer, by Hans Urs von Balthasar:
    …we are drawn into the divine, triune love…
    …Christian existence is the reversal of all natural ethics. Contemplation serves this reversal; it is indispensable to it.
    …prayer and worship are indispensable to the inner act of reason.
    …Christian contemplation reveals its basic presupposition…: on the one hand the openness of divine truth to man, and on the other the openness of the human spirit and heart for this truth.
    …the truth, the love and the whole life of God is open to us…
    …the prayer of listening and contemplation. For the relation between God and the creature is now seen to be borne along by these miracles of God’s incomprehensible love, and God himself, in establishing this relation, is shown to be the ultimate Lover…
    …In contemplating scripture we learn how to listen properly, and this listening is the original wellspring of all Christian life and prayer.

    And, a final one:
    “This is something we must be vividly aware of as we pray, contemplating the word of God: that the whole compact solidity of our creaturely being and essence, and of the everyday world in which we find ourselves and find our bearings, is afloat like a ship above the immense depths of an entirely different element, namely, the unfathomable love of the Father.” (43-4)

    May you, and I, be granted, together with all the saints, ever increasing awareness of this unfathomable love.
    Blessings on you, brother.

  • p.s. over time prayer has become an act of simply being – just being with the one I love and who loves me (as we are at times with our spouse – quietly together, simply enjoying being in their presence) – of being still, of knowing He is God, knowing he is good, remembering afresh that I can trust him with whatever is on my heart and mind at that moment. Words aren’t needed. He is needed. Just him. “Be still and know…”


  • Peter

    I appreciate this post, but why the picture above?