First, prayer is communication with God. So prayer is much more than requests. It is talking to God as we would an intimate friend. It is sharing our life with Him–fears, frustrations, joys, sorrows, and, yes, our requests.
Second, some turn prayer into a formulaic ritual. I thought of this in the story of two people who prayed for their children – two friends who each had a child in an accident and everyone was praying for their recovery. One was healed, and God took one home to be with Him. If God took one child because the mother forgot to pray (or didn’t pray hard enough or didn’t pray with the “right words”), then He is not a loving God but an ogre ready to punish us when we “forget” a step in the religious ritual. I don’t understand all of God’s actions. I don’t understand why my brother-in-law died at 43 or my dad at 59 or Dave at 30. Each one of these people were walking with the Lord and had a strong testimony. But God is sovereign and it was His perfect will to take them. None of them died because someone in the family forgot to pray, or prayed the wrong way. Again, this is a twisted understanding of God.
Third, in 1 John the passage says that our prayers are answered if we “ask according to God’s will.” My challenge is I don’t always know God’s will…I only know mine. So, for instance, when I don’t get something I want, it makes me doubt God’s love (or makes me question if I prayed long enough or hard enough). But all along God is protecting me from what I want in order to give me what He wants…which is always better. He wants me to learn to trust Him and wait on Him.
Fourth, certainly we can pray with confidence according to God’s will that is clearly spelled out in His Word. I can pray with confidence for a person’s salvation (again, it’s not always in my timing). I can pray that a couple does not divorce because God hates divorce. I pray that my children will walk close to Him because I know that’s what He wants (at the same time there may be a time when my children stray…again, that is not because I forgot to pray that day or not pray the right way). My children (just like me) have minds of their own and may have to learn some hard lessons the hard way. So, praying according to God’s will is praying according to God’s Word…and understanding that when I pray according to God’s Will/Word I still don’t know His timing.
Fifth, if prayer is only asking for what we want, or if it is ritualistic and formulaic, then it’s a human endeavor. But again, prayer is communication with God. And we are to be in constant communication with Him. Jesus prayed all night before a big decision in His life–picking the twelve disciples. That reminds me that I don’t pray enough. I need to constantly ask for the Holy Spirit’s control of my words, thoughts, desires, and actions. This is certainly in accordance with God’s Will/Word (Ephesians 5:18).
So, we communicate with God. We tell Him how much we love Him. We confess our sins to Him. We give Him thanks. We put our needs and desires before Him, and we give Him the “Floor” and listen because listening is a big part of communication.