I recently came upon C.S. Lewis' essay "The Efficacy of Prayer," which I feel asks some important questions and offers some valuable insights about the nature and purpose of prayer.
As usual, Lewis wrestles with issues of faith by asking questions instead of offering immediate or easy answers. His main question in this essay is "Why do we pray?" – which connects to other questions such as "What good are our prayers, anyway?" and "What do prayers change?"
Here are a few of his thoughts on the subject:
Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers, or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to cooperate in the execution of His will.Prayer, implies Lewis, is not an activity that we perform in order to change God's will, but a way for us to submit to it. So, when we gather together and pray for the persecuted, we are not praying that God change his will for the lives of our brothers and sisters who are suffering for their faith. To do so would imply that we don't believe that their suffering is in accordance with His ultimate plan of redeeming mankind.
Instead, prayer is a way for us to acknowledge that every life is in the hands of a Lord who is wholly good, loving and divine. His mind is not one that can or should be altered by our suggestions and pleas. If it could be changed – if God acted according to our will – what need would we have for Him at all? And why would believers choose to sacrifice their lives for Him? Wouldn't all Christians be able to just sit back, safe from harm, and simply use our prayers to convince him that all of this persecution business wasn't really necessary?
Prayer is not about changing God, it is about His changing us – His helping us to see past our human perceptions and impulses. Although the story of a believer beaten or tortured for his or her faith might compel us to cry out to the Lord for this suffering to cease, He asks for us to also pray that, even if it endures, we will have the strength to entrust it to His purpose. Likewise, He calls on us to pray that the victim will also experience this strength and trust in Him.
The human life is made up of actions, and the Christian life is characterized by a commitment to make all actions reflect our faith. Lewis emphasizes that prayer is an action – it is a deliberate deed, a movement, a response. It is done because it has an effect. "It is not really stranger, nor less strange," he says, "that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God's mind – that is, His overall purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures."
When we pray, just as when we commit any other action in faith, we are always affected. We are blessed; our lives are filled with more joy, more peace and more hope than they would be if our actions had another purpose. Prayer helps us to know love as it's meant to be known, receive grace as it's meant to be received and, by doing so, teaches us to give both of these things as they are meant to be given. It enables us to connect our actions with God's overall purpose, which is to redeem us and make us holy.