Start Asking God for More
Four Reasons We Pray Less
Praying has always been hard for Christians. I once heard John Stott say that prayer was his greatest struggle in the Christian life, and I suspect he wasn’t alone. I’m also convinced that right now in the evangelical world we pray less than we used to. Why might that be?
In my lifetime (I’m 52), there has been a real shift in the way in which evangelicals pray. When I was a student in both Ireland and the UK, one of the defining features of University Christian Unions was the prayer meeting. Evangelical student groups had two main gatherings each week — one focused on Bible teaching, and the other dedicated completely to prayer. Almost universally, coming together to pray was a reliable index of a group’s spiritual maturity and commitment.
For most students, this pattern was replicated in their local churches, where Sunday’s teaching was accompanied by some kind of prayer gathering through the week. The vibrancy may have varied, but a commitment to prayer was at the core of church life. That is no longer the case. Very few churches I know of have a dedicated meeting for prayer.
Prayer Pushed to the Margins
Richard Lovelace, in a book called The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, writes this:
Ask evangelicals what the most essential condition of revival is, and they are most likely to point to prayer. In much of the church’s life in the twentieth century, however, in both Evangelical and non-Evangelical circles, the place of prayer has become limited and almost vestigial. The proportion of horizontal communication that goes on in the church (in planning, arguing, and expounding) is overwhelmingly greater than that which is vertical (in worship, thanksgiving, confession, and intercession). Critically important committee meetings are begun and ended with formulary prayers, which are ritual obligations and not genuine expressions of dependence — when problems and arguments ensue, they are seldom resolved by further prayer but are wrangled out on the battlefield of human discourse. (153)
Lovelace was writing in 1979. If our prayer habits have changed in the past forty years, they have gotten worse rather than better. Corporately, prayer has slipped further down the agenda. Individually, I suspect that prayer is the great guilty secret of the evangelical church. The important question is why.
Why Are We Praying Less?
I don’t think there is a single reason why prayer has slipped off our agendas, but there are several significant factors which make it harder to pray today than in previous generations.
1. The Rise of Bible Study Groups
In almost every church I know, a central midweek meeting which involved at least some focused time for prayer has been replaced by a series of home Bible study groups. Now please don’t mishear me — I think this change has been positive in many ways. But despite intentions, this move hasn’t led to more prayer. The typical pattern is that the study overruns and prayer gets squeezed. And the prayer requests? All too often we don’t get past praying for the sick or dealing with random requests passed to group members for other people.
2. The Increasing Ease of Life
For many people in the English-speaking world, life is better than it used to be. We are more prosperous and safer than ever before. Global terrorism is frightening, but compared to the specter of the Cold War, for example, it doesn’t have the same effect of driving people to pray.
3. The Dominance of Pragmatism
In the past thirty years, we have made a stunning array of technological advances. I now carry hundreds of times more computing power in my pocket than sat on my desk when I was doing my PhD. We have instant access to the entire repository of human knowledge. We can do things. Add to that the changes in church life — in many evangelical churches, the preaching is better, the music is better, the seats are more comfortable, and the strategy is more sound. So why would we pray?
4. The Availability of Good Teaching
A strange side effect of the staggering array of great teaching material online has been to reduce our sense that we need to pray for the preacher. In the bad old days, Christians were basically reliant on their own pastor for teaching. (It sounds bizarre, I know, but it was true.) That moved people to pray — in some cases, to pray very fervently! We knew our pastor’s weaknesses, his tiredness, the three funerals he had performed recently, his sick kids — so we prayed.
“I suspect that prayer is the great guilty secret of the evangelical church. The important question is why.”
But now, if we are sitting in front of a screen watching or listening to a sermon preached by a guy we don’t know, in a place we’ve never been, to people we’ve never met, it isn’t quite the same. To put it bluntly, it doesn’t really matter to us if God showed up and addressed his people through his word that day. It doesn’t really matter what was going on in that church or in the preacher’s life. The only thing that matters is that he produces the goods. And we expect him to. We don’t need to pray, then; we just need to touch play. The connection between our prayers and the sermon is broken — and when that happens, it isn’t easily fixed.
I don’t think we can really argue against the claim that we are praying less. So what should we do? I am convinced that once we grasp what the Bible actually teaches about prayer, it makes a real difference in the way we think about it — and do it.
Relearning How to Pray
When we step back from the cultural factors that have made prayer more difficult, and instead return to what the Bible says about prayer, we will change both how we pray and what we pray. Consider first how Scripture shapes how we approach God in prayer.
Recognize Your Greatest Needs
Once we realize that God’s agenda for us is nothing less than transformation into the likeness of Jesus (Romans 8:29) — once we get the fact that God is passionate about enabling us to live wholeheartedly for him all day, every day for our whole lives (Matthew 22:37) — then our need to pray becomes rather obvious.
If we are asked to give a talk, teach a Sunday school class, lead a home group, meet to pray with someone else, or visit someone who is ill, can we do those things? Yes, we can. We can cut out the craft, prepare the lesson, read the passage, make the coffee, and get in the car and drive to the hospital. There are things that we can all do quite competently without being thrown into a blind panic. But can we do the work of God in our own lives or in anyone else’s? You must be joking! We may be able to go through the outward forms of all these activities, but apart from Jesus we can do nothing of lasting spiritual worth (John 15:5).
Paul Miller so helpfully says that “learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life” (A Praying Life, 98). And that desperation comes when we see the massive scope of God’s plans for us and our world. When we see our inability to do anything that makes any difference to ourselves or our world. When we see past what’s happening right now, and today, and tomorrow, to what God has been doing in us and our world, and to what God will do in us and our world. When we see how much we need God to change us by his Spirit, and to change other people by his Spirit. When we see these things, then we will start to pray — and keep praying.
Realize That Prayer Will Always Be Hard Work
There is a commonly accepted myth that if we are praying properly (if we are those who are really spiritual), then prayer will be a real breeze. This is not a new idea; it has been around forever. The problem is that it’s just wrong! Paul tells the Colossians that Epaphras, who is held up as a model of what it means to follow Jesus, is “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers” (Colossians 4:12). Prayer is hard work! A simple glance at Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane shows beyond any doubt that prayer isn’t always a walk in the park (Matthew 26:36–46).
Let’s make sure we don’t think that if prayer is hard, that’s a problem — it’s supposed to be like that. Prayer is hard because we live in a fallen world. But it’s also hard because it is intricately linked to God’s lifelong work of transforming our lives. Do you find praying hard? Good — you are on the right track. Prayer is designed to be a key part of God’s lifelong work of transforming us right in the middle of a fallen world.
Pray Patiently and Look for Small Answers
We may not see the answers to all our prayers for God’s work in our lives. We will not wake up one morning to discover that, to our surprise, we are now really like the Lord Jesus. We will not realize, as we lie in bed one night, that now we know all there is to know about God. We will not see the complete answer to many of our prayers. At points, God in his kindness gives us grace-filled glimpses of what he has done in us. But more often than not, we will have to wait. So how do we remain patient and persevere in praying for the same things?
“Apart from Jesus we can do nothing of lasting spiritual worth.”
You know how, if you change your car, you suddenly become aware that there are, in fact, far more red Toyotas on the road than you realized? We need to go through the same kind of experience when it comes to prayer. We need to learn to see what’s already there.
I pray regularly for our girls to grow in their love for Jesus — but sometimes I don’t see what happens next as an answer to prayer. The searching question, the sight of one of them reading the Bible in her room, the selfless action that can only be because of grace at work, the uncomplaining commitment to church this week, the hour they spent talking to each other in their rooms, the opportunity to speak the gospel to their friends — these are all answers to prayer that I often miss. Recognizing these “small” things enables us to keep going, praying patient, persistent, gospel-shaped prayers.
Relearning What to Pray
What we should pray for is controlled by the gospel. Over and over again in the Bible, God tells us to ask for stuff because he is delighted to give. It’s no accident that all the words in the Bible for prayer mean basically the same thing. They don’t mean “meditate with a pious look on your face,” or “commune,” or anything other than simply this: ask.
That fits perfectly with the gospel, doesn’t it? The core of the gospel is that we have nothing, contribute nothing, bring nothing to God — we are rescued by grace alone through faith (asking!) alone. It shouldn’t come as a shock that prayer, which is made possible by the gospel and shaped by the gospel, works exactly the same way. The gospel tells us that God gives to us; we don’t give to God. So we need to ask. God has spoken to us; we talk back to him — and basically, that means asking! We ask for help to understand what God has done for us, to live in the light of what he has done for us, to hold on to what he has done for us, to show other people what he has done for us.
Get On with Asking
Now in one sense, we don’t need to get too uptight about this. In a marvelous passage in Luke 11:9–13, Jesus makes it clear that we are free to ask our Father for stuff, knowing that he won’t give it to us if it’s bad for us or bad for his kingdom (or just plain stupid!). So what should we do? Get on with asking!
“There is a commonly accepted myth that if we are praying properly, then prayer will be a real breeze.”
I’ve learned a lot about this from Rebekah, our youngest daughter. Becky is both completely ridiculous in her asking, and also completely content to take no for an answer. “Daddy, can I have a car of my own?” “No, Rebekah.” “That’s fine, Daddy. Can we have a pet Tasmanian devil?” “No, Rebekah.” “That’s fine, Daddy. Can I take all my sisters’ precious things?” “No, Rebekah.” “That’s fine, Daddy.” I suspect that we are not far here from what Jesus means when he says that we must become like little children (Matthew 18:3–4). Children often have no problem asking, nor in trusting their parents to give them only what’s good for them.
The Focus of Our Prayers
But “ask anything” is not the burden of the Bible when it comes to prayer. The Bible is actually very explicit in telling us what we should be praying for — or at least what the focus of our prayers should be. That’s because there are some prayers which God has said he will always answer. And I would argue that the prayers that God has said he will always answer positively are those prayers which explicitly ask God to deliver on his new-covenant promises.
To put it more generally, God will always answer when we ask him to do his work through his word. So we should pray for God to do his new-covenant work through the gospel.
Become an Expert Ask-er
So, do you want to become an advanced pray-er? Then you don’t need a stopwatch. You don’t need to learn new contemplative methods. You don’t need to do knee exercises. But you do need to become an expert ask-er. This is gospel-driven prayer. You need to realize that without God helping you every step of every day you would make a train wreck of your life and the lives of those around you. You need to realize that the gospel preaches to us, “You are weak and sinful and flawed — but he is strong and gracious and good.”
And then you need to ask him to do what he has already promised to do — especially for the spread of the gospel. God will answer, because this is how he displays his goodness and glory in our broken world. Then keep going until that day when we won’t need to pray, because we will see our God and King face-to-face.