What is the purpose of prayer?
-- L., via email
When I talk to children about prayer, I tell them there are only four types of prayers: Thanks, Gimme, Oops, and Wow! I have them stand up and scream with me as we dance around the room: "Thanks, Gimme, Oops, Wow!" I've formulated definitions for the different types of prayers for adults, but to truly grasp the concept, you must be a child. Prayers reflect what we hope, and what we hope becomes what we know. Sadly for many people, what we hope and what we know elude us in the bad weather of adult life. So try to return to your earlier, more hopeful days.
Understand that the following definitions are not philosophically true. They are, however, spiritually trustworthy. We don't end our prayers with the Hebrew word Emet, which broadly means, "This is true." Instead, we conclude with the Hebrew word Amen, which means, "This is what I trust."
THANKS PRAYERS The urge to pray begins not with need, but with gratitude. We come to understand the fact (and this is a fact, not only a religious belief) that we've been given more than we deserve. If you simply compare your virtue to your blessings -- what you deserve compared to what you have -- you must come to the honest and sobering conclusion that you have more than what any fair accounting of your good deeds would entitle you to.
The Christian word for this excess of blessings over good deeds is grace. The Hebrew word for the same idea is chesed. Now, I suppose there are those who genuinely believe they've been shortchanged by God. Perhaps you believe that after Gandhi and Mother Teresa, you should rank third on the all-time-saints-list. I humbly suggest you seek spiritual and psychological help immediately.
The rest of us are deeply aware that we've been given more than we deserve. The response to knowing this is a Thanks prayer. Such a prayer first acknowledges our living in grace/ chesed, then attributes this to God, the giver of blessings.
It then resolves to share our abundance with those who have not been given enough. Such prayers ask God for nothing. They are just deep, spiritual versions of, "Thank you, God."
GIMME PRAYERS These are the conventional prayers whereby we ask God for something. For many people, these are the only kinds of prayers they make, and this is sadly understandable. Gandhi wrote that to a poor man, God is bread. Our needs often block our gratitude.
Gimme prayers are fine as long as what we ask for is a need and not a want. They're fine as long as we cannot work hard and get what we're praying for by dint of our own efforts. Prayers for a sick loved one to be healed are good Gimme prayers.
Prayers for courage when we're afraid, hope when we're in despair, and love when we're lonely are all good Gimme prayers. "Oh lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?" is a great song lyric but a bad Gimme prayer.
OOPS PRAYERS The most difficult human acts are atonement and forgiveness. Admitting our mistakes and forgiving others for theirs are immensely hard to do. We begin by confessing our sins to God in an Oops prayer. There's something powerful and healing about simply naming our sins.
Falling short of the moral mark is inevitable, but what we do then is not. We can rationalize our sins or just ignore them. Oops prayers begin our acts of repentance, which hopefully move us forward to apologizing directly to those we've sinned against and seeking ways to make things right and whole again.
Repentance and forgiveness may be the most important human spiritual and moral achievements. They define us and save us.
WOW! PRAYERS These are similar in structure to Thanks prayers, but there is an important difference. Wow! prayers thank God for something given to all humanity, not just to us personally. Psalm 19 and its understanding that "The heavens declare the glory of God" is a wondrous Wow! prayer because a beautiful sunset or waterfall, or the sight of the Earth from space, inspires awe in everyone, not just us personally. Wow! prayers put us in touch with awe, and awe puts us in touch with God.