We live in a culture of productivity. And one thing is for sure: a culture of productivity makes prayer challenging. Since we thrive on accomplishments, it is often hard to see what prayer accomplishes when prayers are not answered in the way we want. And when we cannot measure and quantify tangible results of prayer, prayer is often neglected. When we do not get what we want, we give up asking or get frustrated and impatient.
But this is exactly the problem. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer. We often treat prayer as a means to an end—the “means” being whatever it is that we are praying for. For example, I pray so that I can be healed of my sickness or be safe on my travels. While it is not wrong to ask God for healing or safety, prayer is fundamentally not a means to an end. Prayer is the end.
Prayer as the end means that we pray to God not to get from God but to get with God. God is not a magic genie granting three wishes. God is not a heavenly Santa Clause giving gifts if we are good. We talk to God because we are in a relationship with God. If, for example, I talk with my wife only to get something from her, the relationship would be purely transactional. Rather, I talk with my wife because talking with her keeps the relationship going.
The next time you pray, though you certainly can and should ask things from God (Matthew 6:8), think of your prayer as first and foremost building and maintaining your relationship with God. This way, even if God does not give you what you request, you still pray to him because you love him and want to commune with him.
Frankly, the difference between prayer as a means to an end and prayer as the end is the difference between paganism and Christianity.