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.

Temporary’s Path to Apostasy

I’ve been reading Pilgrim’s Progress to my young sons, and I am continually amazed at the depth and clarity with which Bunyan examines the spiritual condition.  Most recently, we read of Hopeful’s acquaintance Temporary and how he fell away from his faith.

Temporary, as his name implies, was a pilgrim who started his journey with enthusiasm, but then quickly left the path of faith. He stand as an illustration of those who, like the seed that falls among the rocky soil, which quickly grew, but then withered under the heat of the sun.  He begins with outward excitement, but as there is no inward working of the Holy Spirit, he soon proves to be apostate.

Christian, in explaining how Temporary fell away, gives us a warning for our own life of faith.  Here are the steps to avoid:

They draw most of their thoughts away from the remembrance of God, death, and judgment to come. 

Thinking regularly on God’s holiness, Christ’s death for your sins, and the coming Day of Judgment keeps you in close communion with God. Yet so often, family concerns, careers ambitions, and the barrage of  social-media and 24/7 entertainment are distractions from thinking of God.

Then they gradually neglect private duties such as personal prayer, curbing their lusts, watchfulness, sorrow for sin, and the like. 

The God-given means fo grace (ie. prayer, Bible study, reading of wholesome books, discipline (physical and spiritual), self-examination, stewardship, etc) are all meant to strengthen you in your faith. Neglect these gifts at your own peril.

Then they shun the company of lively and whole-hearted Christians.

Though you may continue to come to worship, the conversations over coffee never get past the kids activities or current events. The idea of sharing your testimony, or listening to someone else’s never comes to mind.

After that, they grow cold to public duty, such as conscientious listening, reading of the Word, godly corporate gathering, and the like.

When you stop talking to others about your faith, then your desire for worship falls away.  Attendance becomes hit and miss, you cannot concentrate on the sermon, and your commitment to the ministry of the Church weakens.

They then begin to find fault or pick holes, as we say, in the lives of some of the godly, so that they may claim religion is stained based on some weaknesses they have noticed in these believers, and they then justify putting religion behind their backs. 

With no real commitment to the worship and ministry of the Church, you then turn on the people of the Church.  With growing criticism, you judge the saints with specks in their eyes while ignoring the logs in your own (Matt. 7:3-5).

Then they begin to adhere to and associate with, carnal, immoral, and unrestrained men. 

As you no longer participate in the life of the Church, and you don’t like the people of the Church, your circle of activity expands to include worldly entertainment and even Sunday activities (hunting, organized sports, etc) that conflict with church life.

They give way to carnal and depraved conversations in secret, and they are glad if they can find similar practices in any who are considered reputable, for these hypocrites encourage them to be all the more bold. 

As you spend more time with people of the world than with people of faith, worldly influences creep in, looking for the faults in other Christians as justification for your own.

After this they begin to play with little sins openly. 

Desensitized to the effects of sin, you dance even closer to the fire, with no fear of being burned.

And then, being hardened, they show themselves as they are.

No longer bothered with pretense, you invite more worldliness into your life, and reveal your true nature.

Christians, trust in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit to keep you and strengthen you in your faith.  Do not wander or neglect the means by which God has promised to nourish and sustain you.  And if you find yourself in Temporary’s path toward apostasy, repent, and turn from your sins, that you might be restored by God’s mercy!

SDG