Prayer is hard. It’s always been the spiritual discipline I struggle with the most. I blame it on all sorts of things — my busy life, my easily distracted mind, my loud children, my personality, how I’m better at communicating through writing rather than verbally — the list goes on. “It’s not my gift,” I say. Some people are just gifted prayer warriors while I really love reading and studying God’s word, so God must have just wired us to serve different purposes and that’s okay, right?
A thousand times, no. I thought like that for a long time and believing that lie was a tragedy. It’s ignoring one of the greatest gifts ever given to us.
Prayer is the recognition of and participation with God in our life. Our deficiencies in prayer cannot simply be compensated by increased Bible reading, ministry, community, or listening to sermons. Nothing can take the unique place of prayer in the Christian life.
I can say from experience that a prayerless soul is a dead soul.
Blessed Aren’t the Poor in Prayer
Realizing my struggles with prayer, I set out to study it. I talked to people about it and read sermons and commentaries on prayer from other generations, trying to figure it out. In doing so I came to the realization not only of my own poverty in prayer, but the depth of those deficiencies in much of the church — and in particular, my generation.
It is no secret that our western culture provides many opportunities for an anemic prayer life. Our schedules are filled to the brim. Smartphones and technology keep us connected to everyone but God. We pour out our lives and emotions on any number of social media platforms, leaving us little to set before God in prayer.
As I poured over commentaries and sermons about prayer from over a hundred years ago, I was struck, not only by how seriously they took prayer, but how much they discussed the care that should go into our prayers in order that they not be careless and ineffectual. They really got into the specifics of how to pray and how not to pray.
Does God Get Your Leftovers?
In our culture of “anything goes,” we don’t like to think that there can be a right and wrong approach to something that feels so personal. However, when we let our own preferences dictate our prayers, they will be weak and ineffective, unlike the powerful prayers of the righteous (James 5:16). For our own sakes, and the sake of our families, churches, and nation, we must not settle for a “something is better than nothing” approach. As Charles Spurgeon said:
There is a vulgar notion that prayer is a very easy thing, a kind of common business that may be done anyhow, without care or effort. . . . We should plow carefully and pray carefully. The better the work the more attention it deserves. To be anxious in the shop and thoughtless in the closet is little less than blasphemy, for it is an insinuation that anything will do for God, but the world must have our best.
Does prayer require so little of us that we’re content to give God our careless leftovers, when there’s nothing particularly pressing at work or interesting on Facebook? If we want to revive our families, and our church, and our nation, then we must revive prayer — and it must begin with us.
A good place for me to start was to understand what prayer is and what it isn’t.
What Prayer Is Not
Prayer is not a rote and empty ritual. How often do our lips move, yet our hearts are still? We “say our prayers” so very often, and yet how often do we really truly pray? If all we are offering is words, we may as well offer them to an idol of stone. May our prayers never be less fervent than our strongest opinions and emotions and social media posts.
Prayer is not simply “chatting” with God. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) doesn’t mean we just incessantly chatter to God about anything and everything while neglecting the act of intentionally coming before the throne of God for focused and fervent heart-searching, soul-seeking, honest-to-goodness prayer. It’d be like a marriage that consisted solely on texting. I love when my thoughts wander to God as I offer up little praises and prayers all throughout the day. That should happen, but that can’t be it — we must go deeper.
The free access which Christ purchased for us is not a liberty for flippancy before God — it is an invitation to approach the throne of almighty God. The freedom to come boldly before God’s throne of grace does not change who God is (Hebrews 4:16). It was our status that changed, never that of the unchanging King.
Prayer is not about us; it’s about God. It’s the thing that draws our eyes away from ourselves and fixes them on our good and powerful God. The recipe for weak and barren prayers is self — self-sufficiency by thinking we don’t really need prayer in the first place; self-conceit by thinking much of our goodness and little of our sin; and selfishness by thinking primarily of our own needs and wants in prayer. Adore God for who he is, not for what he can give to us. God must be the object, Christ must be the medium, and the Spirit must help us.
What Prayer Is
Prayer is the turning of our soul towards God. It is communication with our heavenly Father, and the powerful force that links child and Father, earth and heaven, man’s impotence and God’s omnipotence. This direct contact is only made possible through Christ Jesus, whose righteousness covered us and provided us unlimited access to confidently approach a perfect God. It is accomplished by the Spirit’s groaning within us and supplicating on our behalf (Romans 8:26–27).
Prayer is the unified work of the triune God to connect with us himself — the Holy Spirit within us communicating through Christ the Son, to God the Father. When God feels distant, more often than not it’s because we are neglecting the very thing that spans the distance between Creator and creature. It is we who are distant, refusing the vital breath of our souls, without which our spiritual life cannot survive.
Lord, Teach Us to Pray
May our prayers not be careless or weak but powerful instruments of change through which the Spirit moves and breathes and eternity is impacted. Our Father is holy and good and worthy of excellent prayers, and he loves giving good things to his children:
Lord, teach us to pray! Against all odds, may we become mighty prayer warriors who in turn teach the next generation, because we have no hope of change apart from you — in the name of your Son, for the sake of your church, and for the display of your glory. Amen.