Struggling to Pray

May I confess something here in regard to prayer?

May I tell you the difficulty of praying to God as I ought; it is enough to make you entertain strange thoughts of me. When I go to pray, I find my heart so reluctant to go to God, and when it is with him, so reluctant to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers; first to beg God that he would take my heart, and set it on himself in Christ, and when it is there, that he would keep it there. In fact, many times I do not know what to pray for, I am so blind; nor how to pray, I am so ignorant.

There it is.

But I have a second confession to make: I did not write the first confession.

As you were reading it, I’m sure you were thinking, “What kind of pastor would struggle like this in prayer?”  The answer is, surprisingly, John Bunyan.  The author of Pilgrim’s Progress wrote this in his work entitled Prayer in the Holy Spirit.  Bunyan, whose immense knowledge of Scripture and godliness were evident in all that he did, struggled with prayer.  He felt, as I have, and I am sure many of us have if we are honest, that we are often no better than those hypocrites who “honor Him with their lips, but their hearts are far from him” (Matthew 15:18).

Those who struggle in prayer stand in good company.  And it should be expected.  Why should that which destroys the strongholds of the enemy come easy to us? When we get frustrated because someone doesn’t respond immediately to our texts, will persisting in prayer through suffering and loss seem worthwhile?  Why should we expect bending our knee and bowing our head to our Sovereign Lord to come naturally to stiff-necked rebels?  Prayer is difficult work.

So what do I do when I don’t feel like praying, when praying is such heavy lifting that I want to give up on it?

Well, the first thing to do is Pray.  Richard Foster once wrote, the “desire to pray is prayer itself.”  It is a longing of the spirit to know fellowship and communion with God.  Though in groans too deep for words, the Spirit of God Himself groans within us, interceding for us, and building within us that desire to pray.  There may be times when our prayers are simple, direct, and anguished prayer, but they are prayers nonetheless.  The regular exercise of prayer, spending time talking with God will increase your desire and readiness to pray.

Secondly, Repent.  So often our hearts get cluttered with the detritus of false gods, the flotsam and jetsam of this worlds good that there is no room for the Spirit of God to move upon us.  We harbor envies and rivalries. We hold on to bitterness and unforgiving attitudes.  We nurse our grievances and feed our lusts until they consume us. Is it any wonder that the Spirit of prayer would be quenched within us?

Repent.  Confess your need for cleansing and renewal. Turn from the paltry and empty things of this world so that you can know the glorious and satisfying presence of God.  Start where Jacob started in his prayer to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant…” (Gen 32:10). Confess your need, and your struggles in prayer, and God will show His goodness to you.

Finally, pray God’s word.  The Bible is full of God’s promises toward His people.  Pray His promises. “Lord, you promised that you would never leave us nor forsake us, but I feel distant from you know.  Please let me know you are near!”  “Lord, you taught your disciples to pray saying ‘Our Father who art in heaven…’ Teach me to pray, and grant me the desire to draw near to you.”  As you read through Scripture, rather than struggling to find your own words, pray God’s words back to Him.  Pray the Psalms as your own prayers, teaching you to praise, lament, and seek God’s help in every situation.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive treatise on prayer, just a reminder that genuine prayer is difficult work, but it is worth the effort.  “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you,” James tells us.  May we draw near to God in our life of prayer.

Prayer Changes Things

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
(James 5:16)

In all the time I’ve served as a Pastor, I have never heard or experienced such a rejection of prayer as what we hear today in our culture.  With every natural disaster or act of terror and violence (and there have been many), when people offer their prayers, the hurting world more and more lashes out with mocking and derision.

There is a part of me that understands the frustration might come when one hears this.   If I were hurting and someone were to say to me, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” but then they don’t pray, or their life is such that everything they say and do contradicts a life of prayer, then I would know that they are just spouting empty words to make themselves feel better and quickly get out of the conversation.  How many times have we heard, or worse, told someone ourselves, “I’ll be praying for you,” but then never a prayer is uttered, and no further thoughts are expressed?  We have, by our own prayerlessness and lack of sincerity, given a poor example to the world of the power of prayer.

But what is most astonishing is the boldness of some today in their outright denial of the effectiveness of prayer.  Most notably, in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, in which 17 students and teachers were gunned down, when our President offered his prayers and condolences for those who were mourning, the “rock-star” astrophysicist and agnostic, Neil deGrasse Tyson, replied, “Evidence collected over many years, obtained from many locations, indicates that the power of prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing school children.”

For starters, as a scientist, when Tyson says he has collected evidence, I wonder what that evidence might be. Is it the fact that bad things continue to happen even when people are praying?  That does not necessarily disprove the power of prayer. It may just mean that we don’t know how the prayer has been, or will be answered.

Of course, one shouldn’t expect someone who denies the knowledge of a real and personal God to uphold the power of prayer as a means of communing with that God and knowing the transforming power of God’s grace.  As intellectual as Tyson is, he is blinded by the veil of sin in this world (2 Cor. 3:14),  but ever the ultracrepidarian, he boasts of that of which he cannot know.

Still, as Christians, those who know and love God, and have been commanded to pray, this current cultural resistance to prayer should serve as a reminder to continue praying, but to pray with confidence in the one who hears our prayers.

Prayer does change things

Contrary to Tyson’s bold declaration, prayer does change things, and there is an abundance of evidence. R.C. Sproul, in his book, Does Prayer Change Things? noted the following evidences in Scripture:

  • By prayer, Esau’s heart was changed toward Jacob, so that they met in a friendly, rather than hostile, manner (Gen 32).
  • By the prayer of Moses, God brought the plagues upon Egypt and then removed them again (Ex 7-11).
  • By prayer, Joshua made the sun stand still (Josh 10).
  • By prayer, Elijah held back the rains for three and a half years. Then by prayer, he caused it to rain again (1 Kings 17-18).

I could go on, but there are also the prayers that have been answered in our own lives.  How often have we prayed and found that God has delivered?  Was this evidence taken in to consideration?  How many times has prayer stayed the hand of an angry father, or a desperate man contemplating crime?  Those stories we may never hear, but they are still answered prayers.  Prayer does change things!

More importantly, prayer changes us.  When we pray, the purpose of our prayer is not so much to see the world around us change, but that God might change the way we see the world around us.  Prayer teaches us to look not to wisdom and influence of man for our peace and security, but to trust in the Lord alone.  Prayer reorients our perspective; we may not know why this is happening, or what it all means, but we can know the Sovereign Lord who reigns over all things, and know that He is good, and He is able to work in all things for the good of those who love him.  We may not know the how, we may not understand the why, but we come to know the One who is at the center of all things, who hold all things together, and who has shown His great love for us in Christ our Lord.

So let us recommit ourselves to prayer.  In the face of overwhelming grief and tragedy, may we pray that God would give us the grace to comfort those who mourn, and to weep with them in their sorrow.  And when we say we will pray, let us pray.  Don’t put it off until you get home, pray right then and there.

And let us pray that God would give us wisdom to heal, not the symptoms, but the cause of the sickness in our culture.  No new legislation, no amount of community organizing, will curb the violence and division in our world today. Those are merely the painful symptoms of a systemic problem. The underlying cause is a radical brokenness within our souls that come from sinful rebellion and rejection of God. The only cure, the only hope that we have is the salvation that has been secured for us in Jesus Christ. May we, through prayer, have the wisdom and boldness to share the Gospel freely, and may God heal our land.

SDG