May 11 2017
I’ve never met a Christian who is completely satisfied with the strength of their prayer life, myself included. But why is that? And what should we do about it? Let’s think about those questions.
Let’s start with that first question: why are the majority of Christians unsatisfied with their prayer lives? The answer, I think, lies in the cognitive dissonance we feel when it comes to prayer.
The Bible is pretty clear about the necessity and function of prayer for the community of God’s people. I did a quick analysis this morning and found that the Hebrew and Greek words translated in our English Bibles as “pray” and its other forms appear 339 times in the Bible. Prayer isn’t a new thing that God dropped on his people in the middle of the story: it’s been a central part of faith since the very beginning.
And most Christians have some idea about what the Bible says about prayer. In 2 Chronicles 7, for example, God says to Solomon, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.”
Or how about this one, from the Epistle of James: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
These are pretty great promises! And they should motivate all of us to focus on prayer as a primary tool in our discipleship.
But I’ll be honest with you: I still find it hard to prioritize. To be clear, prayer is a key part of my life, but when I look at how much I could be praying versus how much I actually am praying, there’s a disconnect.
I think I’ve figured out what that disconnect is: prayer has an image problem. And that’s not prayer’s fault—it’s mine.
For a long time, I had the idea in my mind that prayer was something only the super-spiritual people could be good at. Growing up in church, our services always had the “pastoral prayer,” in which one of the pastors would come up to the front and spend what felt like an hour at the time but was probably only about 5 minutes in prayer. It was boring. But it was also so well done that it set an expectation in my mind that prayer had to be well-structured and follow a particular pattern in order to be valid.
Prayer scared me. I was worried I’d do something wrong and God would be mad. I was worried that the other super-spiritual people would think poorly of me if my prayer wasn’t “good enough.” I was worried that if I prayed for a couple of people others would be mad that I didn’t pray for them as well.
But I think that the real issue was that I was worried about the consequences that prayer would have on my life if I actually did it. If I asked God to direct me, then I’d probably have to listen to what he said. But what if he asked me to do something I didn’t want to do? Maybe it’s better not to ask so that I wouldn’t have to listen to the answer.
In other words, the main reason I struggled to pray had nothing to do with my excuses and everything to do with my idolatry. I didn’t want to surrender control of my life to Jesus. I didn’t want to do the hard work of self-examination. I didn’t want to change. And if prayer was going to lead me there, then I could think up some other reason for my lack of prayer that sounded plausible enough to avoid deep scrutiny.
So what changed for me? Lots of things, but they can all be summed up in one big idea: I realized that Jesus is smarter than me and knows better than I do.
And truth be told the worst fears that I used to have about prayer have all been realized. God has, in fact, told me to do things I didn’t want to do. He has, in fact, exposed areas of my life that were hard for me to admit were problems. He has, in fact, told me to change.
But I also realized that none of those things were as catastrophic as I envisioned them. In fact, what I thought would be the worst-case scenario has often been the best-case one instead.
Tonight, we launch weekly prayer gatherings here at Parkland (7:00 in the north building), and, while I don’t have firm data on this, I suspect that some of you are reluctant to come because you’re where I was years ago. You’re worried that you’ll do it wrong. You’re worried that it will be boring. You’re worried that other people will look down on you if you don’t do it “the right way.”
But maybe, like me, you’re actually worried about the consequences of prayer. Maybe it has more to do with idolatry than with fear. I’m not saying that’s definitely the case; all I’m saying is that it was the case for me, and it’s worth looking into your own heart as well.
But no matter how you feel about prayer, I’d like for you to come out tonight and join us. We won’t make you pray out loud. We won’t make you stay for hours. We won’t ask you to share your deepest darkest secrets.
But we will ask for your willingness to lay hold of the Bible’s promises and trust Jesus to bring about exactly what he says he’ll do. And if we start there, there’s no telling where we’ll go.