Prayerlessness is not fundamentally a discipline problem. At root it’s a faith problem.
Prayer is the native language of faith. John Calvin called prayer the “chief exercise of faith” (quoted in “Enjoying Your Prayer Life,” 12). That’s why when faith is awake and surging in us, prayer doesn’t feel like a burden or an obligation. It feels natural. It’s how faith most instinctively speaks.
Throughout the Bible, faith and prayer are inextricably linked. One of the clearest examples is Jesus’s statement in John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” “Abiding” in Jesus is faith — fully believing his words. Asking whatever you wish is prayer. The Bible tells us to “trust in [God] at all times” (Psalm 62:8), to “[pray] at all times in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18), to “believe in God” (John 14:1), and to ask of God (Luke 11:9). Prayer is the chief exercise of faith.
John 15:7 also shows us that God’s word and faith and therefore prayer are inextricably linked. Faith is a response to God’s word: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). As Tim Keller rightly says, “If God’s words are his personal, active presence [see John 1:1–3 and Isaiah 55:10–11], then to put your trust in God’s words is to put your trust in God” (Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, 53). So if our trust is in God (in God’s promises — 2 Peter 1:4), and God says if you trust me “ask whatever you wish” (John 15:7), then the natural expression of our faith in God is prayer.
The Primary Cause of Prayerlessness
First, when I say “prayerless,” I don’t mean completely prayerless. I mean relatively prayerless. I mean that we aren’t anywhere close to “pray[ing] without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). We aren’t communing with God in prayer, so prayer feels like a burdensome, boring, perhaps futile exercise that we rush through in a perfunctory way or avoid. When we do pray, our prayers seem feeble and powerless, which just leads to less praying. We don’t have it in us “to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
So what’s wrong?
“Prayer is the chief exercise of faith.”
If prayer is the native language of faith and we’re struggling with prayerlessness, then the first thing we need to do is look for a faith problem. There’s a faith breakdown somewhere and, until we get that fixed, our problem will remain.
How do we fix this? We’ll talk about that in a minute, but first let’s talk about what not to fix first.
The Role of Discipline in Prayer
Often our first attempt at fixing our prayerlessness is to try and be “more disciplined” in prayer. We look at heroes, mentors, and peers who seem to have vibrant, powerful prayer lives and figure the solution might be doing what they do or did. If we get up earlier and use a more effective list or app or acronym we’ll fix our problem. Methods are necessary and beneficial as we’ll see, but “more discipline” is a false hope if faith is the problem.
Think of prayer as a train. Faith is the engine of prayer, God’s promises are the fuel, and discipline is the rails. Prayerlessness is almost always due to a stalled engine. For prayer to get going again, we first need to fire up our faith engine again with fuel from God’s promises.
You see, discipline doesn’t power the train of prayer. Faith powers the train as you trust God’s word. But discipline will guide the train. The rails of planning, structure, and methods are necessary. But the best time to address those is when you’ve stoked your engine, because when faith is firing you want to move forward in prayer and you are more likely to be led by the Spirit to choose the rails that are best for your prayer train.
Help for Fighting Prayerlessness
“Faith is the engine of prayer, God’s promises are the fuel, and discipline is the rails.”
So when we’re prayerless, the first thing we must address is the cause of our faith deficit. Here are a few suggestions for doing that:
1. Recall God’s past grace: I put this first because in my experience, when my faith is ebbing low and I’m not even sure why, remembering how God has been faithful to me in the past primes my faith engine to trust in God’s future grace for whatever is causing my current unbelief. “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope” (Lamentations 3:21).
2. Find the leak: Where is the leak in your fuel tank? If the fuel of faith is God’s promises, then there is a promise(s) that you are not believing. Look for fears, doubts, indulgent sinful habits, unresolved anger, bitterness, disappointment, etc. Often these don’t take long to find. But sometimes they are tricky because something has tapped into a buried past experience that is still muddled in your mind. If this is the case, ask trusted believers to help you figure it out. But when you identify it, name it. Get it clear.
3. Repent of unbelief: A lack of faith is sin. It’s dishonoring to God whose every word is true (Proverbs 30:5). We must repent of unbelief. But God loves to help our unbelief (Mark 9:24) turn into belief. In fact, sanctification is largely a process of growing towards trusting in the Lord with all our hearts (Proverbs 3:5). Like he did with Thomas, Jesus holds out to us his scarred hands to remind us that our unbelief is paid for and says, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).
4. Fuel your faith engine with promises: God’s promises are the fuel that fires the engine of faith. Get your eyes off of the focus of your unbelief and get them on the promises that God wants you to believe instead. This is often not as hard as it feels like it’s going to be. It’s amazing how powerful God’s promises are. You can feel completely different in a half hour after recalling God’s past faithfulness and remembering some promises without any change in your circumstances. The difference is believing.
5. Fan your faith engine fire with resources: Here are just a few of many resources that can help you tune your faith engine and build helpful rails for your prayer train:
“Enjoying Your Prayer Life”: a short booklet by Michael Reeves that you can read in 30–40 minutes. It’s broken into 14 chapters of a couple pages each, which makes it easy to incorporate into your devotions. I have found this very helpful.
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God: an excellent new book by Tim Keller that addresses in-depth both engine and rail issues. I’m reading it currently and greatly benefitting.
A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World: this book by Paul Miller has been a strength to me. He compassionately pastors all of us prayer-strugglers and helps us both tune our engines and build helpful rails.
Battling Unbelief: Defeating Sin with Superior Pleasure: this book by John Piper is a wonderful place to fill your tank with promises to fuel your faith engine and will help you fight our most common forms of unbelief.
“Get your eyes off of the focus of your unbelief and onto the promises God wants you to believe.”
“Praying in the Closet and in the Spirit” (John Piper, video or audio, 53 min): a great sermon for your engine and your rails.
“Prayer as a Way of Walking in Love” (Francis Chan, video or audio, 1 hr): mainly for your engine. I’ve listened to this numerous times.
“George Mueller’s Strategy for Showing God” (John Piper, audio, 1 hr, 15 min): mainly for your engine, but some rail help too. I’ve listened to this repeatedly.
“The Ministry of Hudson Taylor as Life in Christ” (John Piper, video or audio, 1 hr, 12 min): mainly for your engine. I’ve listened to this repeatedly.