How to Keep Praying

Four Lessons from the Master

Most mornings, it seems, I forget how to pray. Or I at least seem to forget what prayer really is — what’s really happening in these quiet moments before an open Bible and a hearing God. I may stumble through my thanksgivings and petitions, but apart from some daily remembering, my prayers, like hapless pilgrims in a Bunyan allegory, tend to fall into the slough of distraction, or get locked in the castle of discouragement, or fall asleep on the enchanted ground.

In his book on prayer, Tim Keller writes of the need to “take ourselves in hand and wake ourselves up to the magnitude of what is going to happen” as we pray (Prayer, 127). Before unthinkingly mumbling “Heavenly Father” or “Lord,” pause, take your soul in hand, and remember the wonder of prayer.

And one of the best ways we can remember is by listening to what Jesus himself says about prayer. So much of our Lord’s teaching on prayer is designed to help us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). In the Gospels, Jesus comes to pray-ers like us — discouraged, distracted, willing in spirit but weak in flesh — and he gives us a heart to pray. Of the many reminders we could mention, consider four representative lessons.

1. We come to a Father.

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew 6:9)

Michael Reeves notes how prone we can be to treat prayer “as an abstract activity, a ‘thing to do,’” rather than remembering “the one to whom [we’re] praying” (Enjoy Your Prayer Life, 30). Prayer easily becomes impersonal: “to pray” is to run down a list of names, sit or kneel in such and such place for so long, drive in the old familiar ruts of phrases said ten thousand times. But most fundamentally, prayer is not an abstract activity or a habit or even a spiritual discipline; prayer is a personal response to a personal God — a God whom Jesus told us to call Father.

The wonder of this word often escapes us; it would not have escaped the disciples. They had never called God Father before, except in the broadest sense (Exodus 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1). To address God as “our Father in heaven,” to mimic Jesus’s own affectionate “Abba” — this was astoundingly, wonderfully new. When those who trust in Jesus come to pray, we come to a Father.

“Our Father knows our inmost thought and need, yet still he loves to hear us unburden our souls before him.”

And what a Father he is. He knows our inmost thought and need, yet still he loves to hear us unburden our souls before him (Matthew 6:8, 32). His ear always open, his eye always upon us, he turns our ordinary rooms and closets into sanctuaries of communion (Matthew 6:6). He’s the archetype and fountain of all fatherly generosity, distributing good gifts with both hands (Matthew 7:9–11).

But perhaps the most heart-awakening words Jesus spoke about the Father are those in John 16:27: “The Father himself loves you.” “Here is something to say to ourselves every day,” Sinclair Ferguson writes of these five words. “They are simple words, but life-changing, peace-giving, poise-creating” — and, we might add, prayer-inspiring (Lessons from the Upper Room, 174).

2. Jesus perfects our prayers.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. (John 16:23)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus showed supreme patience with requests that others would have silenced. When the crowds hushed the blind and shouting Bartimaeus, Jesus called him over (Mark 10:47–49). When the disciples sought to send the Canaanite mother away, Jesus drew out her heart and healed her daughter (Matthew 15:21–28). When the desperate father cried, “If you can do anything . . .” Jesus rebuked his unbelief but still restored his boy (Mark 9:22–27). He took uncouth requests, he took imperfect, even halfway unbelieving prayers, and he passed them through the refining fires of his own loving heart.

And so he still does. Three times in the upper room, he told his disciples to pray “in my name” (John 14:13–14; 15:16; 16:23–24, 26). In my name: here is Jacob’s ladder, lifting our words to heaven; the key that opens wide our Father’s home; the robe that adorns our naked requests; the name of the King’s own Son, sealed with his blood and signed with his own resurrected hand.

So, as Charles Spurgeon writes,

The Lord Jesus Christ is always ready to take the most imperfect prayer and perfect it for us. If our prayers had to go up to heaven as they are, they would never succeed; but they find a friend on the way, and therefore they prosper.

“In Christ, our imperfect prayers gain a heavenly hearing.”

Because the Father loves his Son, and because he loves to honor the worth of his Son’s work (John 14:13), he also loves to hear and answer prayers shaped by the words of his Son (John 15:7) and sent in the name of his Son. In Christ, our imperfect prayers gain a heavenly hearing.

3. Struggle and resistance are normal.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Luke 11:9)

Just because our prayers begin with “Our Father” and end with “in Jesus’s name” doesn’t mean all the words in the middle flow easily. Sometimes, even those awake to the wonder of prayer face discouraging difficulties: internal struggle, outward resistance, perhaps even a sense of divine silence. And while such difficulties can reflect something wrong within — a heart overgrown with worldly cares (Luke 8:14) or hiding unconfessed sin (Psalm 66:18) — Jesus’s teaching on prayer is striking for its realism.

“Ask, and it will be given to you” may sound straightforward enough on the surface: a simple cause followed by a sure effect. But in fact, these words follow Jesus’s story of a man who receives bread from his friend only “because of his impudence” — because the stubborn fellow wouldn’t go away (Luke 11:8). Sometimes, Jesus would have us know, prayer feels like asking and receiving no answer, like seeking and finding nothing, like knocking on the door of a friend who won’t open — until holy “impudence” prevails (Luke 11:9).

George Müller, the caretaker of orphans who told of far more answered prayers than most, learned from Jesus’s teaching,

Whilst I firmly believe that He will give me, in His own time, every shilling which I need [for the orphan houses]; yet I also know, that He delights in being earnestly entreated, and that He takes pleasure in the continuance in prayer, and in the importuning Him. (Answers to Prayer, 29)

God delights to be earnestly entreated (see also Matthew 9:37–38), even for gifts he loves to give. Often, then, struggle and resistance and unanswered prayers are no signs of something wrong, but invitations to press on, and every morning to take fresh heart to ask and seek again.

4. Persistence will bring an answer.

Everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. (Luke 11:10)

If you survey Jesus’s teaching on prayer, you will nowhere find him counseling us to expect little in prayer; you will frequently find him challenging us to expect much. No one who persists in asking the Father goes unanswered; no one who keeps seeking fails to find; no one who knocks and knocks at mercy’s door will be left outside forever (Luke 11:10). In God’s time, persistence will bring an answer.

Sometimes, of course, we do not receive the answer we hope for — our Father knows when the “fish” we want would really bite like a serpent (Luke 11:11). Other times, “in God’s time” feels far longer than “in my time,” as the persistent widow discovered in “her continual coming” (Luke 18:5). And sometimes, the answer arrives even after we’ve given up asking, as the old Zechariah apparently had lost hope for a son (Luke 1:13, 18). Either way, if an answer to some longed-for request has not yet come, and if we do not yet discern that God’s answer is no (as, for example, Paul did with his thorn, 2 Corinthians 12:8–9), then Jesus invites us to keep asking.

Müller, telling the story of how he once prayed for years for a particular piece of land, writes, “Hundreds of times I had with a prayerful eye looked on this land, yea, as it were, bedewed it with my prayers” (33). His prayers covered that field like so many dew drops, falling hundreds of times across the years. I wonder if we can likewise claim that we bedew the matters we long for most — not giving up, not growing disillusioned, but humbly and faithfully asking God again.

Jesus would have us do so. For we come to a Father. Our Savior perfects our prayers. Struggle and resistance are normal. And persistence will bring an answer.