Not long ago I was rootling through some computer files and I noticed a list I’d made of prayer requests. There were about seven items in the list, and I think five had already been answered. Looking again, two years further down, and with this list long forgotten, I realized the two remaining items could also be checked off.
This is so fascinating. Where will we all be in five years’ time? What will the world be like? The year 2020 has been a tremor in the normal heartbeat of life. Who would have thought about crashing economies, two million deaths, face-masks everywhere, people afraid to go on the train or to shake hands?
How will history record the past year?
After 2020, the great rises in living standards and shared wealth that had marked that previous quarter century resumed their astonishing and compounding progress
2020 marked the start of serious upheavals that continued for the rest of that dreadful century — called by some the world’s first true Dark Age.
I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have been to be born in my grandad’s generation (born 1899) and facing, but not yet knowing about, half a century of war, death, recession and a long tail of mourning and deprivation.
Or which year in our current century is most like 1913, that summer of the British at their mustachioed, imperialistic peak, a moment that looked like a new high plateau rather than (as it proved) a moment of teetering and fleeting poise, the sunlit dewy morning prior to the slaughter.
My rootling in my computer reminded me that whatever else the next five years will hold or the next 50, for that matter, they will be years of answered prayer. They will be years when our longings have been taken to God and years in which God, mysteriously, but from our perspective, and in response to our cries, spun a golden thread of kept promises and tender goodness into whatever wild tapestry is elsewhere being woven.
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.
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.
/Around 2008 an atheist SF writer named John C Wright prayed this:
Dear God. There is no logical way you could possibly exist, and even if you appeared before me in the flesh, I would call it an hallucination. So I can think of no possible way, no matter what the evidence and no matter how clear it was, that you could prove your existence to me. But the Christians claim you are benevolent, and that my failure to believe in you inevitably will damn me. If, as they claim, you care whether or not I am damned, and if, as they claim, you are all wise and all powerful, you can prove to me that you exist even though I am confident such a thing is logically impossible. Thanking you in advance for your cooperation in this matter, John C. Wright.”
“Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.”
― Frederick Buechner
So stirred by this quote. I think we can pray in many ways. Sometimes it’s good to lift up people we love and situations we care about, working through our lists.
Sometimes we can worship.
Sometimes we work our way through a psalm, or a liturgy.
Some of us like to use the Lord’s Prayer as a set of headings or jumping-off points, a kind of road map to guide our thoughts.
But I wonder if this best sort of prayer is beyond all of these. It’s to do with unpacking our problems before Christ until we come to a place, not necessarily of understanding, but of peace.
Or clambering up an impossible problem in prayer, scrabbling for a foothold, until again, Jesus reaches down and gives us something to hold onto, something that holds us and gives us quiet, happy hearts. The view all around may be terrifying, but we are safe and snug, supported by some promise or gift of trusting that is beyond our understanding.
We have stumbled onto the rock that is higher than we are: Christ’s own trustworthiness. We don’t know how it happens, but it happens.