Prayer may well be the most convicting subject in the Christian life. I know it certainly is for me. I readily admit that I don’t pray as often as I ought, as eloquently as I ought, as fervently as I ought, or as comprehensively as I ought. And I have yet to meet another Christian for whom this is not true. Each of us, as a follower of Christ, is painfully aware of the number of times we have fallen asleep while praying or the number of occasions in which our minds have wandered and gotten sidetracked. We are painfully aware of how frequently our prayers have been cold and clinical or how often they have been small and focused only on ourselves and our immediate circumstances. No matter who we are or how much we have studied or how long we have been Christians, we all feel a little inadequate when it comes to prayer.
Because the subject of prayer carries with it this tendency to conviction and guilt, it is important for us to take up the subject and study it with a different context in mind, one of encouragement and motivation. I want to encourage and motivate us as Christians to give ourselves to the practice of prayer. I want to see us pray more and for bigger things and to do so with greater fervency.
I don’t want to add extra conviction to an already convicting topic. My end desire in all this is not simply to see prayer regain a place of priority in our lives and ministries, as great as that would be, but to see the impact of such a restoration upon the church and the world in our day. I want to see God using us and our prayers to turn “the world upside down” once again in our generation (Acts 17:6).
Starting with Encouragement
So, instead of starting with a convicting quote or illustration about how you and I are not praying like we ought to be, I want to introduce the topic by offering two overarching encouragements. First, I want to point us to the example of the disciple’s failure in Luke 11. And second, I want to remind us of the good news of the gospel message. My hope is that, by doing these two things, we will be able to start our study of prayer in a completely different frame of mind than we would if we began with conviction and guilt.
Whenever I think of Luke 11:1, I am greatly encouraged. This verse tells us that Jesus was “praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” Now, I am aware that this verse may not appear all that encouraging at first glance. But we need to realize that Jesus was more than likely praying audibly on this occasion. He was not praying silently as the disciples looked on from a distance. He was most likely praying out loud, and the disciples were not only watching Him but listening to Him as well.
But prayer is a blessing not only because it strengthens our faith when we see God answer and because it bestows upon us the wonderful privilege of being coworkers with God, but also on account of the fact that it gives us recourse in times of trouble.
The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 would seem to support this conclusion. Hannah, as we are told, was married to a man named Elkanah who was from the hill country of Ephraim. For years, Hannah had been unable to have children. The text specifically tells us that “the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Samuel 1:5). Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, did not suffer from the same malady. She had been quite prolific over the years and had given Elkanah several sons and daughters. Not only so, but she had also apparently been using Hannah’s inability to conceive against her and had, at least on one occasion, reduced Hannah to tears by her constant needling. As a result, Hannah was “deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly,” but the prayer that she offered was silent — the text says that it was made “in her heart” (1 Samuel 1:10, 13). Her lips were moving, but no sound was coming out.
Eli, the priest, was sitting near “the doorpost of the temple” and was watching Hannah as she prayed. He saw that her lips were moving but that no words were being uttered, and, “therefore,” he assumed that she was drunk (1 Samuel 1:13). The mere fact that she was praying — as evidenced by her moving lips — without any words being heard was enough to tell Eli that something was wrong. Hannah must be drunk, because prayer was obviously not done this way, at least not ordinarily. Apparently, it was something that ordinarily could be heard audibly.
Most ancient cultures were “hearing-dominant” instead of “text-dominant” societies. They were built upon the spoken word as opposed to the printed word. They communicated and passed on information and traditions by the words of their mouths. The Jewish culture was no different. Although written texts do figure prominently in Jewish history, as the very documents of the Old and New Testaments attest, these written texts were subservient to the basic oral structure of the society. Jewish culture was built upon the spoken word, as can be seen in the repeated references in the Old Testament to words being “spoken” and “heard” by the people (see, just by way of example, Deuteronomy 1:1, 9, 14, 20, 29, 41, 43; 4:1; 5:1; 6:4; 9:1; 11:1-2, 18; 27:1; 29:2; 31:1, 9-13, 30; 32:44-47).
This means that Jesus was more than likely praying out loud in Luke 11:1. His disciples were watching Him pray and listening not simply to the words He was using but also to the eloquence and fervency with which He was using them. And after seeing and hearing Jesus pray, His disciples were convicted about their own prayer lives. They realized that they obviously didn’t know the first thing about prayer and needed to be taught.
I think this ought to be an encouragement for those of us in the 21st century who feel convicted about our perceived failures in prayer. These men walked and talked with Jesus. They were “discipled” by the Lord Himself. Some of us, for that reason, may even be tempted to think of them as being on a “different level” in their Christian lives. And yet they apparently struggled with the same feelings of inadequacy in regard to prayer as we do today. Our struggles in this area are, therefore, nothing new. Christians have been struggling with prayer ever since the very beginning. And while that shouldn’t condone our failures in regard to prayer, it does most assuredly put them into a different light. The struggles we experience are not unique or uncommon. That, in and of itself, should be an encouragement as we begin thinking through this topic together.
Adding Better and Abiding Encouragement
But the good news of the gospel should also give us encouragement — a “better … and … abiding” kind of encouragement (Hebrews 10:34). For the gospel reminds us that our failures are not simply shared by Christians who have gone before us, even those whom we may look up to profoundly. But, more importantly, the gospel reminds us that our failures are completely forgiven and will never be held against us. The good news of the gospel says that Jesus took all the guilt for all our sins upon Himself. He died for all our gossip, all our selfishness, and all our pride. He died for our sins of omission and our sins of commission. He died for our failures to love Him in the way that we ought, for our failures to live in the way that we ought, and — praise God from whom all blessings flow — for our failures to pray in the way that we ought as well.
I want to encourage and motivate us as Christians to give ourselves to the practice of prayer. I want to see us pray more and for bigger things and to do so with greater fervency.
Each of us has many different reasons for why we don’t pray. It is possible that some of us may not know any better. Perhaps we have never been taught about prayer or have never studied the subject deeply enough on our own to see its importance in the Christian life. Others of us may be “at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1) and, therefore, may not see any real need for prayer at the moment.
Still others may have experienced a recent hardship or trial that has taken our eyes off Jesus and caused us to be angry with God, and because of that we don’t feel much like praying. Or, what is more likely for the vast majority of us, we may be filling our lives with too much activity — even good activity — and not leaving enough room for things such as prayer. Busyness may well be our biggest problem in the West, at least in regard to prayer. I know that it certainly seems like my life consists in trying to fit 15 pounds into a 10-pound bag. And the same is true for just about everyone I talk to. We regularly allow things like “to do” lists, text messages, emails, phone calls, and social media to divert our time and energy from more important things such as prayer.
This is why I want to ensure that, at the beginning of this discussion on prayer, we remember that all these things really have been forgiven in Christ. As the words to my favorite verse of one of my favorite hymns say:
My sin — O the bliss of this glorious thought! —
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
All our oversights, busyness, laziness, and wrong priorities — not just some of them — have been “nailed to the cross” and, for that reason, we “bear [them] no more.” This is the glory of the gospel message, which we need to remember at all times but especially as we take up a subject as convicting as prayer. Jesus has freed us to pray and give ourselves sacrificially to this endeavor by removing the guilt for our failures “as far [from us] as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). And that is surely good news.
Having established the foundation of our discussion on encouragement, I would like to begin building on that foundation by providing a little motivation for us as Christians to devote ourselves to the practice of prayer. One idea here which in and of itself should spur us to pray more and for bigger things is, namely, the blessing of prayer.
Experiencing Prayer As Blessing
Sixteen years ago, I experienced something that forced me to look at prayer and my own practice of it much more closely than I ever had before. That something was Hurricane Katrina. The destruction and upheaval it left in its wake drove me and many others around me to devote ourselves to prayer in ways that we had not previously.
In August 2005, about two months after I accepted the call to serve as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Gulfport, Mississippi, and about two months before I planned to arrive and officially start, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the entire church facility and the homes of nearly 60 families in the congregation. Almost everyone living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was affected by the storm: Some lost their homes, some lost their businesses, some lost their churches, and some lost all three. The devastation was absolutely incredible. It will remain etched in my mind for as long as I am alive.
The whole area looked like a war zone. What remained of people’s homes and possessions was scattered everywhere as far as the eye could see. Huge craters were so widespread along the beachfront highway that it looked like the whole place had been carpet-bombed. Approximately 30 families in the church had nothing but a foundation left to their homes. Another 30 families had homes that were still intact but had been damaged by having 7 to 17 feet of water in them for days on end in the sweltering summer heat.
That is one of the greatest blessings of prayer. You and I get to see God work, and when we do, our faith is strengthened, and our resolve to pray is increased.
As a not-yet-ordained recent seminary graduate, I had absolutely no idea what to do in this situation. If there was a class in seminary on how to lead a church that had experienced this kind of devastation, I had obviously missed it. I was in over my head, and I knew it.
Looking back now, I see that the whole situation was a severe mercy from the Lord in so many ways. It taught me important lessons about myself, ministry, and the church. But, more importantly, it drove me to pray. The church elders called the congregation to join us in prayer and fasting. We pleaded with the Lord to hear our prayers and to provide the wisdom, the finances, the know-how, and the peace and unity that we needed to move forward. And you know what? The Lord provided. He answered our prayers, many of them visibly for all to see. It was a high-water mark in the life of the congregation, to be sure. In many ways, it was a high-water mark in my life too.
How Is Prayer a Blessing?
In Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, God routinely answered our prayers in very visible ways. Over and over again, we had needs that we couldn’t meet ourselves, and we had nowhere else to turn for help. So we prayed, frequently with great desperation, and we saw God answer time and again in ways that clearly showed us He was providing for us.
That is one of the greatest blessings of prayer. You and I get to see God work, and when we do, our faith is strengthened, and our resolve to pray is increased. To be sure, God doesn’t need our prayers. As the sovereign God of the universe, He is able to do all things at all times all by Himself. But He stoops down to use our prayers as means to accomplish His perfect purposes. You and I, therefore, have the tremendous privilege of being coworkers with the God of the universe when we pray. And that is a blessing indeed.
But prayer is a blessing not only because it strengthens our faith when we see God answer and because it bestows upon us the wonderful privilege of being coworkers with God, but also on account of the fact that it gives us recourse in times of trouble. Joseph Scriven has captured this idea so beautifully in his well-known hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged: take it to the Lord in prayer!
In the midst of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, we realized anew and afresh that we had access to Someone who could actually do something to help, Someone who not only held all power and authority, but who was also altogether gracious and compassionate toward us, Someone who loved us and was for us forevermore in Christ. That too is a tremendous blessing, and it belongs to every Christian in and through prayer.
Guy M. Richard is president and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. This article is adapted from his book “Persistent Prayer,” just released by P&R Publishing.