I’ve several times had the experience where there’s been:
A good plan, to do a good thing
Lots of the pieces in place
Some missing piece, or some circumstance, that just slows everything down.
It doesn’t necessarily stop, this great project, but it barely crawls along. Snails overtake it. This isn’t what we bought into. Hope sags. I look at the vision ahead and the progress so far and do some rough calculations and realize I’ll have to move some of our milestones into the next century.
What is happening? So unprofessional. And if this is a Christian-inspired thing we’re trying to do, what is God doing? Doesn’t he care? If appearances are any guide, he is sitting on the hillside beside the lake while we are rowing into a gale. Couldn’t he, you know, lend a hand? Is that too much to ask of one who all-powerful and everywhere-present?
I only have two answers to this.
God may have a different view of how important my contribution is, and may therefore be relaxed about completing his work in the cosmos despite me paddling my canoe with no paddle provided.
There’s a phrase in a dusty corner of the Old Testament concerning offerings to God: ‘handfuls of finely ground incense’ (Leviticus 16:12).
An article I wrote for my friends at Impact magazine, Singapore
Prayerlessness requires real effort on our part.
When the Holy Spirit brushes against your soul, you have to brush him off. When you see a need, you have to suppress the desire to bring it to God. When you sense a flame rising in your heart for God or eternity, you have to douse it.
Practice, of course, helps. With dedication you can coat your heart with a solid shell that resists most holy urges. But even so, if we are Christians, every day we are buffeted by any number of nudges, longings, sorrows, questions and needs that prompt us to go and find God. It’s hard work to dodge them all.
The root cause
I think the reason for our prayerlessness is mostly the same reason that we don’t eat a proper diet, read improving books, make that call to a friend, or learn the piano. It’s that in the moment, we decide to play Candy Crush or flick through our social networks instead. We say no to prayer when we should be saying yes, or yes to some attractive thing when we should be saying no to it, and the accumulation of thousands of those moments eventually hardens and forms us into what we are and will be: I didn’t learn the piano, I didn’t look after my body, and I’ve just declined my millionth invitation to meet Jesus in prayer.
Yes, we are urged to pray
Do we need to pray? Er, yes:
‘Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people’ (Eph 6:18). ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Phil 4:6). ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful’ (Col 4:2). ‘Pray continually’ (1 Thess 5:17). ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people’ (I Tim 2:1). ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed’ (James 5:16).
Then we notice that Jesus was quite happy to live as human being, but he did not seem to manage life as a prayerless human being. Sometimes he stayed up late to pray. Sometimes he got up early. Sometimes his disciples just caught him praying. Ministry decisions? He prayed. Healing? ditto. Feeding thousands? Ditto ditto. Personal crises? In the desert, in the garden, didn’t matter. He called on God. He called on God until he was satisfied. You would say there was something of a pattern there.
What if you’re too busy?
Perhaps you are too busy?
I refuse to believe anyone is too busy to pray. To my way of thinking, the busiest people most of us ever meet are parents with young children. Babies poop, cry, need comfort, get hungry, get mad and never hesitate to alert the authorities with a live-stream of loud requests. They tend not to be all that patient either. Parents of such creatures, especially when not helped by others, are busier than a general fighting a war. Show me a young mum doing most of the caring of two small children and I will show you a sleep-deprived zombie who is too busy to finish a sentence, let alone a meal, and for whom a bathroom break is a triumph of battlefield planning.
And yet she has time to pray. When the kid is sleeping, or undergoing air-to-air milk refuelling, or being wheeled up and down a corridor in the pit of night, she has time to reach out to God. Her prayers may not be coherent, but that doesn’t matter. Coherence can be overdone. She’s slurping an energy-drink at the spiritual ringside, ready for another round.
Honestly, you’re not too busy to pray.
So what is the cure?
Is there a cure? There is.
First. Understand you can be more fluent in the things of God and prayer. Look around your church. Some people have mastered it. Some people know God and walk with him every day. There are even some people–plenty of people actually—who are quiet and hesitant in social settings, but when they are switched over to prayer-mode they turn confident and eloquent. When they start to pray, these people are like an academic walking into a library or an alcoholic opening a bottle of Scotch. They’re home. Heaven is their happy place, even while they keep one foot on earth. You can be a bit more like them
Second. Understand what happens when you pray and what happens when you don’t. To turn to God in prayer is to access a secret, invisible world where you can pull levers that change things on earth and where you can come face to face with Christ.
Missing out on prayer, on the other hand, means that part of us lies forever fallow. Part of us that could be fruitful, colourful, playful, remains unploughed, unsown, and the butterflies must flutter elsewhere. All of us have areas of our life like that: but our prayer life never needs to be one of them.
More than that, if you don’t pray you’re mostly stuck with earthly solutions to everything. This is greater deprivation than losing your phone.
Third. There are a million possible solutions to the issue of prayerlessness. I suggest they all flow from a single principle. Combatting prayerlessness requires some mixture of discipline and spontaneity. This is the same way we become fluent in other areas of life, such as keeping fit or learning a musical instrument.
We have to build in some regular habits, but we also have to remind ourselves that keeping up the habit is not the aim. Enjoying God and being with him is the aim. It’s like practising the piano. We don’t practise so that we can say ‘I practised’. We practise so that we can make music.
How do we practise prayer? It surely varies with each individual and each season of life. Here’s my list; your friends will have other lists.
Schedule a regular time- either a part of a day or a number of minutes in the day. You might start small: ten minutes. Then you might get more ambitious.
If you’re married, get into the habit of praying together every day. My wife and I do this every night. We didn’t always. But it’s a good habit.
Decide that you are going to pray even when the situation is non-optimal. It isn’t perfect to pray in the corridor at work as you walk to the toilet; but it’s not a bad moment to turn over whatever’s on your mind before God.
If you can’t get alone, write or type your prayers. People will think you are just fooling with your phone.
Reclaim your insomnia. Can’t sleep? Pray. Stay in bed if you like. So your mind drifts? Well, steer it back. Non-optimal, half-sleepy prayer is better than no prayer at all, like a sleepy kiss is better than no kiss at all. Stop waiting for everything to be perfect.
Don’t always use words. It’s OK just to be in God’s presence. Sometimes you don’t have words.
Alternatively, it’s OK to speak words if that helps and it’s OK just to pray in your heart if that helps.
Sign up for some regular prayer food. This can help broaden your horizons. I recently started working with the Operation World prayer ministry. They have an app that you can access every day and thus pray for the world over a year. Couple of months in, I’ve kept up. (See Operationworld.org.) Many groups have similar initiatives.
Try things. Pray through the alphabet – pray for something beginning with A, then something beginning with B, and so on. Pray through the psalms. Use the Lord’s prayer as a set of headings.
Try a total immersion method. If your church has 24-7 prayer room, or prayer event, sign up for an hour and see what happens.
We Christians, I thought the other day, look at the world through a drinking straw. We search the whole realm of nature for familiar markers of God at work that we can note and approve of: Bible-studying, praying, church-going.
People who encounter us feel this. They feel themselves scrutinized and judged through a drinking straw. We don’t see the totality of them, or care about their world really; we’re only interested in what fits through our drinking straw. Unsurprisingly, they are not attracted.
There’s another way of looking at God’s work: the eyedropper. In this picture, the activity of God is like a drop of ink dripped into a clear liquid. The liquid could be a moment in time, or a human soul, or the whole world, or the whole universe. (The scale doesn’t matter; the principle is the same.) God colours the whole.
This seems to me a more Biblical picture. The Kingdom of God is the mustard seed that takes over the garden, the yeast that ferments all the flour, the feast at the end of the time to which all humanity is invited. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his Son.’
Who are we?
So are we evangelicals drinking-straw servants of an eye-dropper God, the narrowly-focussed in the service of the Wide? It can certainly seem that way. Our services are all about Jesus, our noticeboards are full of people all doing Jesus-themed things. Our Sunday Schools could be site of the old joke, where the new teacher asks the kids ‘what’s got a bushy tail, lives in trees and eats nuts?’ And after a long silence a kid pipes up, ‘I’m pretty sure the right answer is “Jesus” but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’
Drinking straw servants?
Drinking straw servants of an eyedropper God? It’s an easy charge, and I think we are somewhat guilty, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Here’s why. There is a place in love for infatuation. There is a season for a deep, greedy, obsessive searching for and finding God. There’s a time to get the drinking-straw perspective deep into your heart. When you decide to marry someone, you spend time, in love, obsessively rearranging your mental furniture. Perhaps it’s similar when you make Christ your Lord.
But I don’t think we should get stuck here. Oh God, give us breadth. Securely loved, with the basics settled, we are all the better set up to see God’s life dripping everywhere, and to cooperate with it.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1: 2-4).
It sounds impossible, or at least inappropriate. In the midst of suffering, James tells us to ‘rejoice’, to give thanks, to worship. Do we thank God for the suffering? No. Do we thank God that the suffering is making us a better person? No, I don’t think so.
Instead, in the middle of things–I think it means–we turn to God and thank and worship him for who he is.
He hasn’t stopped being kind, reliable, powerful, purposeful, true. Despite our personal eclipse, the sun still shines. That exercise shapes us in good ways and helps put us on top of our troubles rather than them being on top of us.
Best of all about this verse for me is the phrase ‘of many kinds’. James is telling us how to process trouble and sorrow of every kind whether it’s the small frustration of missing the post with a birthday card or the unhealed pain of a loved one lost.
(Originally written for a series of Lent devotions whose title I have forgotten)
Here’s how prayer works. The overflow from God’s heart spills over into our hearts. The overflow of our hearts pours into his. We are entangled together, God and us, like two quantum particles. What stirs one, stirs the other.
When many people are moved to pray, some great wave of desire is stirring in God’s heart and flowing into many of us.
Or alternatively, something mighty maybe stirring in many hearts and slopping over to God’s heart.
Back and forth the waves flow.
When two or three agree together in prayer it will be done for them. Why? because the act of tuning your hearts so that they resonate together before God necessarily tunes them together into God’s own frequencies.
This has practical uses.
So much of prayer, surely, is scrambling around trying to find out what to believe in for today. Where in the buffeting of desire or longing or fear is the place we can anchor our souls for the day? Tomorrow is another day. But today’s calm place is what resonates with God today and where he wants to lead us today.
‘The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.
Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.‘
He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:
‘It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.‘
(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).
I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.
Jean-Paul Satre or Radiohead might not have the last word
‘Jesus lived as someone who knew something we don’t – that something of dramatic importance was about to happen, and he was bringing it about. And then he rose from the dead, kickstarted the new creation, and told his followers there was a job to do, a planet to heal, a Gospel to share, a world to save. Look what happened. Deadbeat fishermen became apostles. Tax collectors wrote books that are still bestsellers today. Broken, demonised women became the first witnesses of the new creation. Arrogant thugs turned into church planters. Jesus had taken on futility and won, so you don’t have to listen to Marcel Duchamp, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Radiohead, or whoever is depressing you at the moment. Because of Jesus and resurrection, futility is very, very last season. Meaning is back.’
Andrew Wilson, quoted in Matthew Hosier’s Thinktheology blog Meaning Radiohead. Worryingly, I knew Matthew’s dad.
To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart…
(I was pleased to receive this thoughtful story for the blog.)
‘I was such a good missionary. I had given up so much. Surely God would respect that. Right?’
A cross-cultural worker writes of her experience of paring down her worldly goods ready for a simple life among people much poorer than herself, and then finding that within her first 12 months the precious things she had taken from home were mostly broken or damaged by visitors to her home.
She describes her pain and anger with God, followed by brokenness at the recognition of her resentment; the resulting surrender to God and the realisation ‘that people are always more important than things. Always.’
The title grabbed my attention because I too have pondered over similar issues. Not that I have lost crockery or ornaments. Having never been much attached to goods and chattels, I would have difficulty filling two plastic barrels, let alone the 20 that this lady writes of! But that doesn’t mean that other things don’t become precious to me…
Looking back over more than 35 years in mission I have thrown myself into my work, seeking always to honour God, to build up and encourage others. By and large I have enjoyed the ministries God has led me into. These have been for the most part low-profile, with the occasional up-front speaking engagement. I have long recognised God-given leadership gifts and have often been aware of my own insecurities in this role. At the same time, aspirations and ambitions have at times risen to the surface and have had to be laid before God. In asking Him to ‘rank me with whom You will,’ I have frequently been surprised at where He has taken me.
The vision fades
For me, the breaking has come in a different way. I look back over two periods of my life when as part of a leadership team I have given of my best, often going beyond the call of duty, to get a team to the ‘performing’ stage.
In the first case, decisions began to be taken that unwound the changes we had led. Had we failed to communicate the new vision adequately? Or had people simply gone along with it at the time for the sake of peace? Slowly we watched the ministry drift, lose personnel, and forget the original vision.
In the second instance, I stepped down and the new leadership team that took over proved to be overstretched with other responsibilities. That led to dissatisfaction and drift and eventually new leaders were appointed. But they proved to be an unhappy choice, failing to gain the support of the staff.
To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart is painful – doubly so when it happens the second time! As a former leader I felt I couldn’t interfere. There were days when I had to work hard to avoid adding my comments to the critical voices around me (to my shame I have to say, not always successfully.) As I struggled with my feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment at those who appear to be making poor decisions and ultimately at God Himself for allowing this to happen, I could only watch and pray and ponder…
Did I as a leader miss something significant? Where did I/ we go wrong? Could I have done more to prevent things falling apart? Have other parties been at fault? (Don’t we all want to place the blame at someone else’s door?) This was my life’s work – what is there to show for it? Have I wasted my days building a house of hay and straw, only for it all to come tumbling down? And then, of course, the big question: Where is God in all of this?
The God Question has been the easiest to answer. Over and over again He continues to reveal His love and His grace. He is the unchanging One and in those ongoing revelations of grace I have been reminded that God is loving and kind and altogether on my side! He tests the motives of our hearts and takes us through the refining fire. It is after all His work, not mine, and who am I to argue with Him? It is He who permits ‘men to ride over our heads’. As time has gone on Psalm 66:10-12 has enabled me to put things in perspective. I can only conclude that God has been there all along and continues to work out His purposes, even when the walls come tumbling down.
At the end of the day He will be glorified.
The same psalm speaks of God bringing us to ‘a place of abundance.’ This too is part of my story. Not only have I discovered afresh the love and faithfulness of a Heavenly Father, but I am surrounded these days by people who are choosing to follow Jesus. Playing a small part in their discipleship and practical support is an incredible privilege, with its own joys and sorrows. Through difficult days God has indeed brought me to a place of abundance.
When we’re trying not to be beaten senseless by our own thoughts, I like the way the Psalms do it.
Complain all you like but always praise some.
Sometimes just praise.
This is great! And it’s in the Bible:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:1-2 NIVUK)
But then you have to praise.
It’s like when two of you have had a row, but one of you decides to say a slightly kind thing. Just that slightly kind thing can start to dismantle the situation. Before long you’re friends again. In the same way, a little willingness to praise starts to cap the gush of self-pity.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13:5-6 NIVUK)