Would prayer still be worth doing if it had no benefits either for the person doing the praying, for the person being prayed for, or for the God who’s being prayed to? At bottom, what is the reason for praying?
There’s a fun little debate that sometimes arises between Christians: do we pray for God’s sake or for our own? Do we pray so that we will be happy, so that God can give us good things? Or do we pray to make God happy, because God wants to be glorified and our prayer gives God glory?
Even if we believe that there are benefits to be had for every party, the question is still important, and there is indeed at least a case to be made for each side.
“Obviously it’s all about God,” one side will say. If we’re doing our praying for selfish reasons then we put ourselves above God, we make God merely a means to our own ends, we treat God not as God but as a subservient genie who relates to us as the granter of our wishes, however narrow our view of the benefits that stand to be gained from prayer. That’s all quite antithetical to the life of faith.
“Obviously we don’t do it for God’s sake,” the other side will scoff, quite reasonably. God doesn’t need us and God doesn’t need anything from us. God is absolutely complete, lacking nothing, able to receive nothing from us which we ourselves didn’t first receive from God. God is outside of time, eternally unaffected by the ever-changing affairs of human experience. What hubris, to believe that anything we do can in any way improve or detract from the superabundant glory and goodness of God.
As with all matters pertaining to divinity, the capacity of language starts to break down as we get closer to the truth, and so both of these positions, while true enough in themselves, don’t quite manage to grasp the whole truth. Still, I am convinced that it is a good exercise to try to pin down what the reason for praying might be, if we aren’t doing it just for the benefits it might confer on us, and if we aren’t doing it on account of its necessity to or benefit for God.
If we’ve ruled out utilitarian motivations for the moment, what about deontology, and what about virtue ethics? It seems to me that both of these approaches offer a superior account of the reason for praying.
Prayer is a duty. Even if praying brought us nothing but disaster and grief, and even if praying in fact did nothing but degrade God’s honour by pulling the divine down into association with our finitude and sinfulness, we would still be obligated to offer God our prayer and worship, if we accept the classical account of theism. God is the source of our existence and everything good in our lives, and to recognize that as often as possible is only just.
Prayer is virtuous. It is the natural expression of a rightly ordered soul, an unavoidable product of the gratitude, the awe, the terror, the desire that arise within those who are in any measure good and just and wise.
Awareness of God belongs by right in the realm of human existence, and prayer is both an instance of such awareness and also a prompt that helps prevent us from losing such awareness. That is the core of why we pray.