In the School of Prayer

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1)

There is a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which Hamlet plans to kill his uncle Claudius, but cannot because Claudius is praying, and Hamlet would not want Claudius’ soul to be cleansed and rise to heaven. Setting aside the unbiblical and misguided understanding of salvation, what has always resonated with me in this scene in Claudius’ comment after he rises from prayer. In great irony, Claudius has found no comfort in prayer, saying, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below” (III.iii.96). His prayers have been insincere, ineffective, and his soul remains unchanged in prayer.

Often have I shared this feeling when rising from prayer.  I draw near to the Lord, but feel my words have merely bounced around the room; never penetrating the roof, much less the throne room of grace. How can I be prepared for an eternity before God in His new Heaven and new Earth, when I grow weary after 15 minutes in prayer?

Spiritual disciplines require a similar approach in training as physical disciplines.  If you want to run a marathon, you start by running 1 mile. If you want to grow in prayer, then you must start praying.  Pray, seeking God’s Holy Spirit to give you the words to pray, to give you a spirit of prayer, to increase your passion for praying.  The old puritans taught, “pray until you pray.”

So I’ve decided this year to enroll myself in the school of prayer.  To sit under the teaching of God’s Word, reading and studying the prayers of scripture to increase my heart for prayer.  I’ve picked up a couple of books on prayer, and some collections of puritan prayers, and those will help – but the most important part is simply to pray.

I was reminded recently that prayer is not the work of the Church, it is the very heart of the Church. Without prayer there is no connection with God, no seeking His face, no being led by His Spirit. Without prayer, all the labors of the Church are in vain. So let us then ask the Lord to teach us to pray; and may we know the great power of prayer as it is working (James 5:16).

I’ve added here some of the bullet points from the opening chapter of D.A. Carsons, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Prioritiees from Paul and His Prayers (Baker Books, 1992, Grand Rapids, MI) Digital Copy.

  1. Much praying is not done because we do not plan to pray. We do not drift into spiritual life; we do not drift into disciplined prayer. we will not grow in prayer unless we plan to pray.
  2. Adopt practical ways to impede mental drift. Vocalize your prayers, pray over the scriptures, make prayer lists, journal your prayers – find ways to keep your mind focused on the act of prayer.
  3. At varies periods in your life, develop, if possible, a prayer partnership. Seek someone to teach you to pray, or someone you can teach. Prayer-partner relationships are as valuable for the discipline, accountability and regularity they engender as for the lessons that are shared.
  4. Choose models – but choose them well. Listen to others pray. Read books of prayer. Study their content, their breadth, their passion, their unction – but do not ape their idiom.
  5. Develop a system for prayer lists. Whatever the system, use prayer lists.
  6. Mingle praise, confession, and intercession; but when you intercede, try to tie as many request as possible to Scripture. One of the most important elements in intercession is to think through, in the light of Scripture, what it is God wants us to ask for.
  7. If you are in any form of spiritual leadership, work at your public prayers. Public prayer ought to be the overflow of one’s private praying.
  8. Pray until you pray. Pray long enough and honestly enough that you get past the feeling of formalism and unreality that attend not a little praying.

When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayers

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?”
(Psalm 13:1 ESV)

One of the questions that I hear most often from other Christians is, “Why doesn’t God answer me when I pray?”  To think that God does not hear, or that He hears but does not answer, can be crushing.  I know the pain and frustration of unanswered prayer, so I am always sympathetic with their situation.  Still, this is not a new question, it’s asked repeatedly in Scripture.  Listen to the anguish of David in Psalm 13:1, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

We’ve all heard it said that sometimes God answers our prayers like a stop light.  At times we get the green light of God’s “Yes,” and we can move forward.  Other times, there is the red light of God’s “No,” and we know to look elsewhere.  Then there are times when we get the yellow light, God saying, essentially, “Wait here.”  But there are other times when we feel like all the lights are off, that we’re making no connection.  As the King in Hamlet said after his anguished prayer, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

What I want to offer today is a brief list of possible reasons why we feel as though God does not answer our prayers. This is by no means exhaustive, and I hope to return to it later and maybe expand upon these points (who knows, this could be the start of a book.)  If you think of other things that stand in the way of prayer, email me or comment on this note, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts as well.

We are looking for an “experience” in prayer

There are moments in prayer when we “feel” God’s presence.  I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to describe the experience, but as soon as I say it, you know what I’m talking about.  Maybe it feels as though the room is spinning, our you feel a rush of warmth, joy, and peace.  These moments in prayer are electrifying, and when they don’t happen, prayer can seem disappointing, as though maybe we’ve done something wrong.

I suggest that these experiences in prayer are not the norm, and should not be looked for in every moment of prayer.  The ecstatic experience should be celebrated when it comes as a blessing, to be sure, but the invitation to commune with God in prayer is a gift in itself. 

We don’t pray with persistence

When facing trials and hardships, we turn to the Lord in prayer; but how long do we give God to answer us.  A week?  A day?  Before I say “amen”?  When we don’t hear an answer when we expect an answer, we give up too quickly and say, “God isn’t listening to my prayers.” 

If your concern is of great importance to you, persist in prayer.  Like the Israelites who had to march around Jericho for seven days, like Naaman who was told to wash in the Jordan seven times to be cleansed from leprosy, like the widow in Jesus’ parable who kept crying out for justice, we are encouraged to be persistent in our prayers.  Even when it may seem like our prayers are going nowhere, keep praying.  We don’t know God’s timeline, but we know that He is faithful and just.  “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7)

We don’t expect Him to answer us

Maybe part of our problem in prayer is that we don’t really expect God to answer our prayers.  We pray to God, but we don’t act as if God is going to respond.  We tell God our problems, but we have no faith in God to deal with them.  I heard a Pastor in a church one day tell his congregation, “Don’t ask me to pray for rain if you aren’t going to bring your umbrellas.” 

We don’t ask

James 4:2 critiques the church saying, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”  Prayer is the offering up of our desires to God, and seeking all that we need from His hand.  How many times, though, when someone asks if you have any prayer requests, your reply is, “No, I’m fine.”  We go through life as if we need nothing from God, as though we can provide for ourselves from our own resources, live on our own strength.  We tell ourselves, “God doesn’t really care about my needs, so I’ll pray for everyone else, but not myself, I’m just fine.”  Jesus taught us to ask God for our daily bread, for everything that we need to get through this day.  We are radically dependent upon God, prayer is the mere expression of that reality.

We don’t ask appropriately

James 4:3 goes own to say that our prayers aren’t answer because when we do ask in prayer, what we ask for is selfish and not good for us.  We pray, “God I really need a raise so I can continue to pay my bills and have the things I want,” when what we probably should be praying is, “God, help me to live within my means, to be thankful for what I have, and to share the gifts you’ve given me to help those around me.”  We pray, “God, ‘so and so’ has been a real pain in the neck all semester, make her change so things go better,” when perhaps our prayer should be, “God, I’m struggling with ‘so and so,’ help me to be a better demonstration of Christ’s love, help me to be a friend, change my heart towards her.”

We are harboring sin in our hearts (Psalm 66:18, I Peter 3)

One of the hardest truths to accept in prayer is that God will not hear our prayers when we are harboring sin in our hearts.  Do you feel like God is silent?  Then stop to examine your heart.  Are you holding on to a grudge and refusing to forgive those who have offended you?  Are you refusing to listen to the teaching of the elders and church about some aspect of your life?  Are you following your greedy impulses?  Have you neglected worship and the study of God’s word, have you stopped contributing to the needs of the saints?  These things stand in the way of our prayers.  Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”

We do not attend to God’s word

If you want to hear God speaking to you, you must read His word.  It is so sad when people say they want to hear God’s voice, they want to know God’s will, but they refuse to turn to God’s word.  If you want to know what God is saying, read his love letter to you.  Don’t wait for handwriting on the wall (that wasn’t an encouraging message anyway for Belshazzar, anyway), don’t wait for an audible voice from the heavens – read the word that God has given.  God may speak to you in other ways, it’s possible, but God has promised to speak to you through his word.

I hope that if you read this and find yourself saying, “Yeah, that’s me,” that God will begin to open your heart to a new spirit of prayer.  May you be encouraged to come to the Lord in genuine, heartfelt, honest, and persistent prayer, and my God, through prayer, encourage and strengthen your soul.