In Matthew 6, Jesus twice tells the people who are listening to the Sermon on the Mount that God the Father already knows "all your needs" and therefore we should not worry. These statements comes immediately before and after he explains how to pray; which includes statements about keeping prayer short and keeping it private.
So clearly, prayer is important. Jesus spends a good bit of time on the subject. Scripture often encourages us to pray. But he also makes it clear that prayer is not about giving God information, or about giving God advice on what to do.
Doesn't God know the future (and being non-linear, actually exist in what we see as 'the future')? Doesn't God know not only what we will do, but also what God will do?
So then, what is prayer? Because it sure seems like a contradictory mix of 'asking for things, which God already knows about, and yet more than just asking for things'.
Let me be up front: I'm not sure I'll be able to give some definite, packaged neatly in a box answer that resolves all the confusion and tension for you. Because I still wrestle with it. Like much of the perspectives Jesus offers, I think there's an intentional element of mystery which invites us to explore and wrestle with the topic.
But I digress. Let's look at the example of prayer Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount, commonly known as 'The Lord's Prayer'.
This prayer sure seems to be focused much more on God than it is on me as a person. As in, the person praying is working to orient themselves toward what God is doing in the world and in their own life.
Wanting God's kingdom to come on this earth, asking for forgiveness and protection from evil, and in the short portion that involves making a request for personal needs, "our daily bread", there's this element of not dictating what our needs are, but rather trusting that God will know and provide what we actually need, even if we don't.
Here's a part of my story which influences how I see this working in my life:
My wife and I purchased a business a number of years ago. When the business started going downhill financially, we prayed very hard, asking God to turn things around. It never happened. The business died a slow, painful death, deeply impacting our finances in the process.
Yet we did not have to declare bankruptcy, we always had enough food and clothing for our kids, and we were able to remain in our house.
That experience changed us as people, and we've always had 'daily bread'. So we are choosing to trust that God is accomplishing a purpose he had in mind through that experience, even though we can't necessarily see it for ourselves.
So if prayer was about getting the end result we wanted, it failed. But if prayer is about us getting on board with what God is up to, perhaps that's not a failure, because we continue to pray and receive God's grace in the midst of our lives which continued after we locked the doors of our business for good.
We give credit to God for making it through difficult circumstances, but what about somebody who studies hard for a test, then gives God credit for passing the test? Is that the same thing?
At this point, let me take a big step back, so see the forest instead of the trees.
God created us to be in community with God, and in the midst of that God-community, to be in community with other people.
I think prayer is all about connecting to that God-community. The God community doesn't guarantee any results in this life. Some believers die for their faith. Some live to a 'ripe old age'. Some are rich, some are poor. Some are famous, some are anonymous. What is guaranteed is that this God-community is going to be fully realized on this earth and we will get to be part of it.
William Nicholson wrote in Shadowlands that prayer doesn't change God, it changes me.
I would add that it orients me towards who God is and what God is doing. I see myself being like a satellite dish. Capable of of receiving signals, but only when it is pointed in the right direction. God is transforming me by the power of his Holy Spirit, and when I 'tune in' to that signal, the picture can become much clearer.
In the end, we have a loving father who has promised to set all wrongs to right, as N.T. Wright likes to say. Being part of the community he invites us to be a part of and inviting others to that community is our purpose in life. Prayer helps us to stay focused on that goal.
God doesn't need our advice, or our need-list, but God wants to have closer relationship with us, and when we talk to him, we get that.
When my 3 year old son talks to me, I don't always understand what he's talking about. I asked him last December what he wanted for Christmas. He told me, 'A house, some underpants and some red and yellow lights." I have no idea where he came up with that list, and he didn't get any of those things, but I loved it because we were getting closer by communicating.
Prayer isn't a last ditch effort to get God's attention, it's a constant exercise of remembering who he is and who I am.
So pray about anything and everything. There's no wrong way to pray, I would simply encourage you to try and be open to hearing what God is saying in response.