Maybe you can relate to a scene in a novel. Annie Dillard describes a church service in her book Holy the Firm:
The minister is a Congregationalist and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God's grace to all in the middle of this he stopped and burst out, "Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week." After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.
Almost every week, somebody climbs the stairs, stands behind this pulpit, and prays. Most every week, they pray pretty much the same things. Have you ever wondered why we take time on Sundays to pray as a congregation?
The verses we've just read actually tell us why we bother to pray. I found four reasons why we should pray in just a few short verses, so let's go:
1. He invites us to pray
A new president is taking office in a couple of days. If you had tried to call the president-elect five years ago, you probably could have reached him with a bit of persistence. If you try calling him this Wednesday, you're out of luck. Access to the most powerful leader in the world is granted to only a few, and you're probably not one of them.
A Norway teen once dialed a secret phone number for the White House. He said, "I just wanted to talk to him--have a chat, invite him to Iceland, and see what he'd say." He pretended to be the president of Iceland. He was surprised when his initial call didn't pass through a switchboard, but went directly to a higher office to be screened by various security officials. He was asked a series of personal questions in an attempt to verify his identification. He never made it through to the president and was later taken from his home for questioning by local police. No charges were filed.
You may not be able to get through to the president, but someone infinitely more powerful invites you to talk to him. Three times in this passage, Jesus - who is God himself - invites us to pray, commands us to pray. He repeats it so we get it: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7).
What's surprising is that God, who is infinitely powerful, who lacks nothing, and is surrounded by angels, and who enjoys perfect fellowship within the Godhead, actually invites us to talk to him. We pray because God invites us to.
2. He makes promises to us if we pray
Verses 7 and 8 say:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened.
That's the second reason why we pray. Not only does God invite us to pray; he makes promises to those who pray. Including the end of verse 11, Jesus makes seven promises in this passage. God answers when we pray.
I know that we read these verses and have lots of questions about unanswered prayer. It's a legitimate issue, and deserves its own sermon. But we should never lose sight of the amazing fact that God does answer prayer. He answers everyday requests: prayer for him to provide, prayer for guidance and wisdom. He also answers extraordinary requests. I can think of three times that God has healed someone in my family in a miraculous way in response to prayer. We pray first because God invites us to, and second, because he makes promises to us if we pray.
3. Because he is available to all of us all the time
My wife lost her credit card on Christmas Eve. She left it at Sobeys. She eventually found it, and they had it there safe in an envelope waiting for her. Even though she still had an open account, that account wasn't any good to her as long as she didn't have her credit card.
There are lots of things that are only available some of the time, but God is always available. Notice how Jesus described three levels of how prayer can feel to us. Sometimes it's asking: God seems present, and all we have to do is ask. Sometimes prayer is like seeking: we actually have to go looking for God, because he doesn't seem present. Sometimes God seems even further away, like someone who's locked behind a closed door. In that case, we go knocking. But Jesus says God is actually available to us in all three cases. No matter how far away God is, he's available to us - when we just have to ask, when we have to go looking for him, even when it seems we're knocking on a closed door.
Then notice what he says in verse 8: "For everyone who asks receives." I read stories sometimes of people who excel in prayer, and they intimidate me. I am not a prayer warrior like some people. But God doesn't play favorites in prayer. "Everyone who asks receives." God is available to all the time, not just to some of us but to all of us all the time.
4. Because he is inclined to answer
What is your father like? It's a tough question because there are all kinds of fathers. Every Saturday my dad used to take my sister and me out shopping. It would be tons of fun. He would buy us stuff and play with us. I have really good memories. But other times would not be as good. One time I must have ticked him off, because he dropped me at home early, and I remember waiting in the garage while it rained until someone came home and could let me into the house.
Many of us have good fathers, but nobody here has a perfect father. Jesus says as much in these verses: our fathers, no matter how good they are, aren't perfect. But most of them are inclined to do good things for their children. It's just part of being a dad; you want to look after your kids. But Jesus says that God is our Father, except he is a Father who never lets us down. He is always looking out for what is best for us. He is incredibly interested in the welfare of his children. He is inclined to give good gifts to his children. "Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance ... it is laying hold of his highest willingness" (Archbishop Richard Trench).
When Jesus says that God is our Father, he also reminds us of who we are: children who are dependent on him. When you're a child, you never try to be self-sufficient. You accept that your father has everything that you need. That's exactly our position with God. We need him. And he is more than willing to meet our need as we come to him.
It's here that we see the real shift in our relationship with God. When you begin to see God as your Father, you understand all that Jesus said. You know you've been invited. You hear his promises. You know he's available and inclined to answer you. But you notice that it starts to be less about what you can get from God, and more about the sheer delight of relationship with the One who offers all of this to you. We move from prayer being about getting things from God, to prayer being about seeing his worth and beauty, and marveling that he wants to spend time with us.
We don't only have access to God. We have relationship with God. God isn't just open to hearing from us. God gave up his own Son to make it possible. We never have to wonder if God is interested in hearing from us. As the apostle Paul said, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)
I mentioned the preacher who prayed for the same things every week. It probably seems like a waste of time to some. But maybe he knows that God has invited him. Maybe he knows that God has made promises to those who pray. Maybe he knows God is available, all the time, to everyone. But most of all, maybe he knows that God is inclined to answer. Maybe he's discovered that prayer isn't only about getting things from God, but it's about the sheer joy of relationship with him.
That's why we pray.