Guilt is a terrible motivator for any behavior, except repentance. We cannot sustain ongoing spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, from a sense of guilt. That’s not what guilt is designed to achieve, and it’s why feeling bad over not praying enough will never turn us into men and women who “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Technically, guilt is a legal status. Emotionally, guilt is a burdened conscience, our response to an awareness of real or perceived failure. Therefore, guilt is something to get rid of, not something to harness as a motivation to develop and persist in a habit. Its intended purpose is to push us toward one primary action: repentance. Repentance is God’s designed means to free us from the burden of guilt.
On the other hand, God’s designed incentive for us to “work heartily” (Colossians 3:23) — to “toil and strive” (1 Timothy 4:10), to discipline our bodies (1 Corinthians 9:27), to die every day (1 Corinthians 15:31) by denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus (Luke 9:23–25), and to “press on toward the goal” to attain the resurrection from the dead “by any means possible” (Philippians 3:11–14) — is reward, not guilt (Philippians 3:8, 14; Colossians 3:24).
The Problem with Legalism
This is why Jesus’s gospel is such good news for us! Through faith-fueled repentance, Jesus grants us forgiveness for all our sins (Luke 24:47) by taking them upon himself on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). And when we come to Jesus in this way, he frees us weary, heavy-ladened sinners from the burden of our guilt and gives us rest (Matthew 11:28). But more than that, he gives us the ability then to lay aside our sin-weight so we can run the race of faith, looking to him, who himself is the great Reward set before us, along with all God promises us in him forever (Hebrews 12:1–2).
Too many of us have fallen for the lie that doing more tends to produce more than praying more.
When Jesus wants to motivate us to be free from guilt, he offers us rest in him through repentance. When Jesus wants to motivate us to follow him in the hard way of discipleship (Matthew 7:14), he offers us the reward of treasures in heaven (Mark 10:21).
That’s why functional legalism — our efforts to get rid of guilt and find acceptance with God by trying harder in our own strength to live up to his (or someone else’s) standard — doesn’t work in the Christian life (or any other life). We can never meet the standards of external behavior and heart motives that alleviate our sense of guilt. The best we can achieve are occasional, brief moments of guilt reprieve.
Why Don’t We Pray More?
We need to keep this in mind when we read radical exhortations to pray in the New Testament, such as,
- “Be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12)
- Pray “at all times in the Spirit . . . with all perseverance” (Ephesians 6:18)
- Pray about everything (Philippians 4:6)
- “Continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2)
- “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
- “Always . . . pray and [do] not lose heart” (Luke 18:1)
I find these verses convicting. I’m growing in my prayer life, but I can tell it’s not like Paul’s prayer life, much less like Jesus’s. My observations over forty years as a Christian tell me most Christians, at least in the West, would say something similar.
We will never cultivate or sustain a vibrant prayer life out of a sense of guilt.
Why don’t we pray more? The answer is very simple and very convicting: we don’t pray more because we don’t really believe it will do much good. Our personal, cultural, and religious experiences have helped reinforce a belief that doing more tends to produce more than praying more. So as “Bible-believing” Christians, we officially affirm what the Bible teaches us about prayer, but neglect it in practice, because we don’t functionally believe the Bible’s teaching about prayer.
Now, this unbelief produces guilt — and it should. Unbelief in God’s promises and disobedience to his commands are sin.
The Secret to Praying More
But what do we do with this guilt over our unbelief?
Too often we respond to our guilt with a resolve to pray more. We try for a little while, only to find it unsustainable. Why? Because although our conviction is right (we’re failing to pray enough), we are harnessing the wrong motivation to correct our behavior. Praying more as a means to alleviating guilt won’t help us pray more, because that’s not what guilt is for. Guilt is a burden to release through repenting of unbelief and receiving forgiveness and restoration from Jesus.
If we really want to pray like the Bible teaches, we must harness the Bible’s motivation: God’s promise of reward. If we look at the context for every biblical exhortation to pray listed above, we see the incentive of reward.
- “Be constant in prayer” so that spiritual grace gifts and love will abound in the church (Romans 12:6–13).
- Pray “at all times in the Spirit . . . with all perseverance” so that we will be protected from powerful satanic attack, and the gospel will be proclaimed accurately and boldly (Ephesians 6:10–20).
- Pray about everything in order to be relieved of troubling anxieties and allow the peace of God to guard our hearts and minds (Philippians 4:6–7).
- “Continue steadfastly in prayer” for the sake of remaining spiritually alert and seeing the manifold grace of God that prompts thanksgiving (Colossians 4:2).
- “Pray without ceasing” in order that there will be unity and love and appropriate submission and patience and joy in the church (1 Thessalonians 5:12–18).
- “Always . . . pray and not lose heart” so that we receive what it is that we desperately want and need from God, whose heart is to give his elect justice (Luke 18:1–8).
These examples just scratch the surface. The Bible is full of promises of reward for those who pray.
Fuel for the Fire
The secret to fueling our growth in prayer, to cultivating prayer as a more pervasive “habit of grace” in our lives, is to fan the fire of our faith in the promises of God.
Jesus never frees us from guilt by giving us more to do, but by calling us to rest in him.
To do this, we must look away from our faith-draining insufficiencies, failures, and heavily biased experiences, to God’s promised abounding grace and all-sufficiency (2 Corinthians 9:8) as well as the experiences of others in the Bible and church history who have experienced more effectual prayer than we have. All these help increase our faith and expectancy.
Faith in the word emboldens us to take this promise-check to the bank of heaven and not stop asking until it is cashed: “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14).
God doesn’t want guilt-motivated pray-ers, he wants pray-ers who come to him as their Rewarder and their Reward (Hebrews 11:6, 26). The more we experience him as both, the more we will pray.