The Real Problem of Prayer

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Pastor, Pepperell, Massachusetts

I remember a blessed season of my life in which I sat under deeply, doggedly God-centered preaching. And I learned a surprising lesson: often, the sermons didn’t specifically address practical topics — such as marriage, singleness, career, tithing, relationships, or time management — and yet they did. By getting to the very center of all things, the preaching touched everything. By being “impractical,” it became eminently practical.

I think that’s often the way it is with the Bible. Ephesians 2:11–22 is not specifically about prayer, and yet it has everything to do with prayer. That’s because it’s about our relationship with God, and our prayer lives are a big piece of that relationship. This passage can transform our experience of prayer by giving us important insight into the real problem of prayer, the only hope for prayer, and the true pattern of prayer.

Real Problem of Prayer

What comes to mind when you think about prayer? Perhaps you remember peaceful moments of communing with God, or times when you pleaded with God to fulfill a deep desire, or agonizing seasons when you cried out to him in fear or frustration. Maybe you recall sweet times of gathered prayer with God’s people.

When some of us think of prayer, we mainly feel defeated. We think of the problems we encounter: a distracted mind, a weak will, a cold heart, a conscience plagued by shame. Why is it that when we’re praying that ticking clock or buzzing insect suddenly becomes so distracting? Why do we find it so difficult to pray?

We face a lot of problems in prayer. But Ephesians 2 identifies the real problem, and it’s much more serious than any of those just mentioned.

Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:11–12)

In these verses, the apostle Paul reminds Gentile believers that before they became Christians they had a horizontal problem (they were separated from God’s people) and a vertical problem (they were separated from God himself). Prior to this passage, Paul says that people apart from Christ aren’t just separated from God; they’re his enemies, dead in sins, under his righteous wrath (Ephesians 2:1–3).

“We have double help in our prayers. Both God the Son and God the Spirit speak to God the Father on our behalf.”

So, the real problem of prayer is not how difficult it can be to pray once we gain access to God. It’s our lack of access to God in the first place. The real problem of prayer is not a subjective problem (having to do with our own emotions and feelings), but rather an objective problem (having to do with our relationship with God). If there’s a friend from whom you’ve become deeply alienated, your main problem is not the nuances of how to speak to her — rather, it’s her refusal to hear you at all. What you need is access. You need her favor instead of her anger. You need restoration of the relationship. This is the real problem of prayer.

Only Hope for Prayer

Thankfully, Paul doesn’t leave us stuck with a huge problem. Ephesians 2:13 begins with a pivotal phrase: “But now . . .” Something big has happened, and Paul hammers it repeatedly in the passage that follows. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” That’s a reference to the death of Jesus, which deals with both horizontal and vertical alienation, producing well-being between Gentiles and Jews, and between God and human beings. Paul repeats himself in Ephesians 2:14: Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” And just in case we haven’t yet gotten the message, he says it again: Jesus’s purpose was to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).

The only way we can be brought into communion with God (and therefore have him hear and answer our prayers) is through the death of Jesus: his blood, his flesh, his cross. Only this will address the real, objective problem of prayer — not how we feel, but rather the way we are (sinful), the way God is (holy), and our lack of access to this holy God. Jesus’s death is the only hope for our prayers.

When we come to see the real problem and the only hope for prayer, our humility, gratitude, and wonder at being able to commune with God will soar. Our careless and flippant attitudes toward prayer will plunge. We’ll appreciate prayer as a blood-bought privilege to be savored. This is the beginning of a transformed prayer life.

True Pattern of Prayer

There’s more good news. Jesus’s redemptive work does more than bring us to God; it also creates a pattern of communion with God, and therefore a pattern for prayer. We see this in Ephesians 2:18: “For through [Jesus] we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father.” John Bunyan built his definition of prayer on this Trinitarian structure: “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit.”

We pray to God the Father, as Jesus himself taught us to pray (Matthew 6:9), as he regularly modeled in his own prayer life (Matthew 11:25; 26:39; John 17:1), and as the apostles prayed (Ephesians 1:16–17).

Because our access to the Father is through the atoning death and continuing advocacy of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:34), we approach the Father in Jesus’s name (John 14:13; 15:16; 16:23–24, 26). We come “with confidence” because we’re “in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11–12). Jesus, the Son of God by nature, makes us sons of God through adoption — and children have access to their parents. Francis Chan tells of speaking at a large venue to thousands of people. During his talk, his little daughter, who had been sitting in the front row, wandered away from the person minding her, up onto the stage, and stood there beside Francis as he spoke. She simply assumed that she could have access to her dad anytime. It’s like that for us because of the work of Jesus Christ.

And, as Bunyan says, we pray in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us (Romans 8:26). So, we have double help in our prayers. Both God the Son and God the Spirit speak to God the Father on our behalf.

“Jesus’s passion, pleasure, and purpose is to bring us into the presence of the Father.”

This pattern encourages us to be Trinitarian in our prayers, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. This is “the grain,” the directionality of prayer, as Fred Sanders observes (The Deep Things of God, 211). When you’re cutting a piece of wood, it’s helpful to know the direction of the grain. When you stroke the hair of a cat against the grain, you may get into trouble! Everything works better with the grain. Jesus’s passion, pleasure, and purpose is to bring us into the presence of the Father — and the Holy Spirit shares this passion.

From God, Through God, To God

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis memorably expressed the wonder of prayer to God:

An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God — that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying — the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on — the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life . . . he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself. (163)

There is major help and encouragement here for us, as we learn to pray with the grain, as we come alive to the massive privilege of access to God our Father, as we marvel that the Son and the Spirit intercede for us. And so we pray with a sense of wonder and a settled confidence. We pray with joy and purpose.