Here’s another piece I wrote for the Singaporean magazine for newish Christians and which is destined for my forthcoming book The Sandwich.
Prayerlessness requires real effort on our part.
When the Holy Spirit brushes against your soul, you need to brush him off. When you see a need, you should suppress the desire to bring it to God. When you sense a flame rising in your heart for God or eternity, you must 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 on our phone 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 a 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 get in touch. 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 plugged onto her breast, 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 not great.
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 need 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. It’s good to find out from other people what does and doesn’t work for them. Then see what works for you. 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. I have a friend who as a young Christian decided to tithe his waking hours. A tithe of sixteen waking hours is 96 minutes. For some years he aimed, and mostly kept, to the plan of either studying his Bible or praying for 96 minutes a day. Things changed, I am told, when he got married; but it was a good discipline for a long time.
- 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. 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.
You get the idea.
Bonus material: my scientist friend Ruth Bancewich has also been blogging (and experimenting) on prayer. Here‘s her helpful thoughts.