It has been said that prayer is the spiritual breath of the Christian. If that’s so, why are so many of us suffocating ourselves? The Bible clearly sets forth both the privilege and duty that is prayer, and yet it’s still a struggle. Or is it just me?
We should own up to our failures in praying, not to despair but to course correct. We need to address this fundamental spiritual discipline before we can expect to mature in other areas of our life. In the words of one perceptive Christian, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” If you struggle with prayer and want to know why, you might consider and assess the following areas in your life:
1. Warped Theology
Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’re a heretic. But it does mean that you have likely absorbed or imbibed—perhaps even unconsciously—suppositions about God and even yourself that are simply wrong.
For example, we might tell ourselves that prayer is a superfluous act because we affirm the omniscience of God. We think, “Why should I waste my time telling God what he already knows?” But, in reality, God never tires of hearing from us. He says, “let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet” (Songs 2:14). The psalmist corrects our bad theology: “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:1–2, emphasis added). Because God listens to him, the psalmist says he will pray all the more!
Maybe we secretly believe prayer is an unnecessary act because we have the current situation under control. Sure, there are times when prayer is warranted, but today is a pretty routine day, so I don’t need to bother the Lord with any requests. Of course, what the Bible actually teaches is that apart from clinging to Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). Right theology gives us a right view, not only of God, but of ourselves. He is everything; we are nothing. And yet, in prayer our nothingness taps into the everythingness of God—what a blessing!
2. Weak Flesh
Orthodoxy won’t solve everything. Prayer is a battle of the new spirit against the old flesh that lasts the whole life long (Rom. 8:22–23). It was in the context of trying to get his disciples to pray that Jesus acknowledged “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). At times, we know we should pray—we may even want to pray—and then when we begin—well now, the pattern of my carpet has never been so fascinating!
What is happening in these moments is more serious than we may think. Drowsiness, daydreaming, and even push notifications are weapons employed by the evil one to keep us from growing in godliness. Weak flesh must ultimately be combatted by a Spirit-empowered strong faith—a conviction that the prayer we’re about to engage in matters and does something. What will rouse us to pray is belief in God’s word that tells us “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).
3. Far-off Jesus
Struggling to pray isn’t a new problem. The disciples had warped theology and weak faith like the rest of us, such that they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Notice they don’t say, “Teach us how to pray.” Their request is much less ambitious than that. They are saying, “Teach us just to do it at all!”
But herein lies the remedy to our malaise. What prompted them to ask this in the first place? They saw Jesus praying (Luke 11:1). It’s as though the blessing and the glory of communing with his heavenly Father was emanating from Christ—they could see it, hear it, almost taste it. They wanted it.
I wonder if we don’t have enough prayer in our lives because we don’t have enough Jesus? If you acquaint yourself with the person and work of your Savior, and read about his devotion to prayer, your relationship with prayer will change. Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “[I]f I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies.” This is true, but I think if I could hear Christ praying for me, I would also pray. His prayers not only comfort, they compel. They compel me to attain something of that same sweet communion he shares with the Father.
Do you want to pray? Are you frustrated with past failures and wondering what to do? Get close to Christ and start with the disciples’ request: “Lord, teach me to pray.” There is nothing he would rather do. And you know what? When you ask him that, you will realize you have already started to pray.
Jonathan Landry Cruse