Most of what I’m sharing here has been born out of intense personal experience. I’ve wrestled with these doubts. And over and over again I find myself believing these lies about prayer. I am not writing as one who has “figured out” prayer. Deitrich Bonhoeffer has said, “True teachers in prayer can only help by directing to the one who must Himself help us pray.” So, this is not going to be 12 secrets to a great prayer life, or a clever acronym to help you remember how to pray “the right way.” It is not about heaping guilt on ourselves in regards to how much we “should” pray. It is not even about tricks to help us pray more, although I will share some tools that may be helpful. I just want to expose the lies of our hearts that keep us from communing with God, and hopefully point you to Jesus, who is the only one who can help us find the grace that is prayer.
1. God is indifferent to my prayers. We may sometimes ask, ”Why should I pray since God already knows what he’s going to do? What difference does it make?” This is a temptation to be cynical about prayer. Some people say, “Prayer doesn’t change anything. It just changes you.” Have you heard this objection? Have you ever thought this? In Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus teaches us that we should ask. If we as parents give our children good gifts, “how much more will our Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Jesus doesn’t just command us to believe this truth, he gives us a logical argument for praying with faith.
In the section on prayer in his book Bible Doctrine (158-159), Wayne Grudem deals with the tension of knowing God is sovereign, and yet reading verses that indicate our prayers are effective. He concludes that while God does not need us to tell him what we need (Jesus says in Matthew 6:8 that he knows what we need before we ask), prayer does allow us as creatures to be involved in activities that are eternally important. Even though we can’t explain exactly how it works, it is clear that in prayer we participate in God’s sovereign will.
The way this works is a mystery. Sometimes difficult to accept because we want to understand how it works! Paul Miller describes the mysterious nature of prayer. He says, “We try to figure out the mystery, it will elude us. Some things disappear when you try to capture or observe them-the most precious things in life can’t be proven or observed directly.” He goes on to describe this using the example of a child with autism. Many of you may know that we have a daughter who is profoundly affected by autism. One of the defining characteristics of autism is that children with autism often struggle to make eye contact with people. Instead, they sometimes look at people out of the corners of their eyes. The theory is that because of the way they process sensory input, it is too overwhelming for them to look directly at people. Prayer is similar. Miller says, “It is too overwhelming for us to look at prayer directly. We must look at it sideways, out of the corners of our eyes.”
The response to our cynicism is believing that we can pray with expectation, even though we don’t fully understand how it all works.
Psalm 34 speaks to this lie that God is indifferent to our prayers. It describes how we can pray with the expectation that God will be responsive:
4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
5 Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
6 This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.
7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them.
8 Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
9 Fear the LORD, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
10 The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
2. God is impersonal and distant. He isn’t close to me. We may sometimes ask, “What’s the difference between praying and just hoping for things? Does God really care?” Or we might say, “I’m afraid that God won’t answer, and if he doesn’t, I’m afraid that I won’t believe any more.” In some ways, these questions represent the obstacle that is behind all of the obstacles to prayer–doubt and unbelief. We struggle to believe that God is good, personal, and intimate. And if (when) we can’t believe these things, we won’t come to Him.
But the good news is that God has come to us in Jesus. The fact that God has sent His son Jesus Christ to earth, to live among us, and to die for us is a demonstration of God’s intimate, personal love. In the midst of the apostle Paul’s instructions to men in the church to “lift up holy hands” in prayer for the government (1 Timothy 2:1-6), we read a surprising summary of the gospel. Verses 5-6 say, “There is one God, and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all men” This is why we pray. This is how we can have faith that God is near. He has already drawn near to us in Jesus.
The response to doubting that God is near is believing we can pray with confidence in our Father’s intimate love, because he has demonstrated this love on the cross.
A Psalm that is helpful to pray when we believe that God is impersonal is Psalm 139. It describes God’s intimate knowledge of us and love for us:
Lie #31 You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.Psalm 139:1-10
As I’ve been studying prayer, I’ve come across several resources that are really helpful. You’ll find quotes from each of these books highlighted as part of this series:
- A Praying Life by Paul Miller
- Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
- Bible Doctrine by Wayne Grudem (pages 158-67)
3. The Culture of Secularism. What I mean by this is the belief that there is a disconnect between “God’s world” and the “real world.” We might ask, ”Can I talk to God about everything? Should I just pray about important things or spiritual things?” Honestly, I would guess that most of the time, people wouldn’t even ask these questions, because they don’t consider praying about everyday matters. That is because, in our culture, we inherently think there is a disconnect between God’s world and the real world. This mentality comes from the Enlightenment. Since that period in history, people in the West have thought of the “sacred/spiritual” world and the “secular/everyday life” world as two separate things.
But the Bible speaks against this division. In the Scriptures, all of life is spiritual. But it is hard for us to believe this. Jared usually comes into the church early on Sundays, and I drive in a little later with the girls for the 11:15 service. Sometimes we’re running late, and I hope against hope that I don’t have to park a mile away from the building and treck across Germantown with our three daughters. One week, we were running late and it was raining. However, a car pulled out of a spot on the street near the building just as we were approaching. I said to myself, “That was lucky.” Then, I thought, “No, that was God’s grace.”
When we think about what a secular/sacred division looks like, we often think it looks like the people who go to church only on Easter and Christmas. But we are susceptible to this mentality! How many of us pray about finding a parking place when we are running late? Or for our child’s behavior before we drop them off at SojournKids? Or when we lose our keys? We can pray about everything, because all of life belongs to God. All of life is spiritual.
But it just seems really unspiritual! Really spiritual people don’t pray for things like that! We concentrate on praying for lost souls and God’s glory. Bonhoeffer points out that this kind of thinking stems from a desire to be more spiritual than God Himself, who instructs us to pray for the necessities of physical life and visible evidences of His gracious gifts in all areas of our lives. Just think about how Jesus instructs us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
The response to living in a culture of secularism is believing that God is involved in every aspect of our lives, and we can pray about anything.
When we are tempted to divide the spriritual world from the “real” world we should be reminded that all of the world belongs to God as we see in Psalm 104:
Lie #410 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.Psalm 104:10-15
Before continuing with the seven lies that keep us from praying, I thought it would be helpful to review a few tools that aid us in prayer:
- Notecards: In his book, A Praying Life, Paul Miller highlights notecards and journals. Miller dates his cards and places a person’s name at the top. Then, below he can put down a Scripture passage or bullet points that he is praying for the person. I’ve found that the “Notes” app on an iPhone works just as well.
- Journals: Prayer is interconnected with every aspect of your life, because all of your life is part of God’s story. Miller says, “Learning to pray is almost identical to maturing over a lifetime. What does it feel like to grow up? It is a thousand feelings on a thousand different days. That is what learning to pray feels like…it isn’t something you accomplish in a year. It is a journey of a lifetime.” Sometimes journaling or just making notes of our prayers can open our eyes to God’s hand in this journey, especially over longer periods of time.
- A Prayer Calendar like this one can guide us to pray for aspects of our kids’ character that we might not otherwise think about.
- Praying Blessings. For each of the lies that keep us from prayer, I’ve provided model prayers from the Psalms. The psalms can provide a model for praying blessings over our children as well. David Michael’s A Father’s Guide for Blessing His Children outlines how to turn psalms into blessing prayers.
4. I need to protect myself. We might say, “I don’t know how or what to pray for. What if I pray something that is not God’s will? I’m afraid to pray for what I really want.”
Why are we afraid to be honest with God about our true desires? We are really trying to protect ourselves from realization that we are not in control; from the realization that we are not holy; from the realization that we are not powerful. If we could control God and make him answer the way we want, praying would be easy, but when I am willing to pray even for my selfish desires, I confess that I am out of control. This means we can pray for our children honestly–for their good health, for their academic/athletic success, for their repentance and salvation. God is the one who ultimately decides what he will give. But, nevertheless, he wants us to ask and believe that he gives good gifts to us, because we are his children.
The response to a desire for self-protection is believing that we can pray with childlike faith because we have a good Father who knows what is best for us.
When we are struggling to be honest with God, we can trust in our Father’s goodness and confess that we are dependent on Him for everything. Psalm 103 is an example of what this looks like:
Lie #51 Praise the LORD, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the LORD, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.6 The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.Psalm 103:1-6, 13-14
5. “I feel burdened to pray, but it feels obligatory. I know that I should pray, but I don’t want to.” Basically, when I pray I feel holy. When I don’t, I feel guilty. The root issue of this lie is the idea of works righteousness. Praying more makes me a better Christian, and, on the other side, when I don’t have long prayer times, I feel guilt from not “doing” enough. Both perspectives view prayer as a good work and not a means of grace; as something we do for God; something that pleases Him.
Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-18. If our prayers are the prayers of the pharisee (good works done to earn God’s favor), then they will become drudgery. But, if we enter into prayer expecting to receive from God, then we will pray like the tax collector. And we will RECEIVE mercy and grace in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16). In fact, Romans 8:26 says that we really do not even know what to pray, but the
Spirit intercedes for us.
Sometimes we focus too much on the prayer itself instead of God. Our goal is to experience God, and prayer is the means by which we get to know Him. When we fail to pray, we are really forfeiting the grace we could be experiencing and withholding that from ourselves.We don’t pray to gain favor for better results with our children. We pray because, when we do, we recognize that we can not control their hearts, only God is able to do that. And in those moments we find rest from our futile efforts and worries.
The response to thinking our prayers make us holy is believing that we always pray imperfectly as sinners who can approach God in Jesus’ name.
When we are tempted to think of prayer as an obligation or when we feel guilty for not praying enough, we can pray Psalm 51 and remember that we are sinners who can boldly approach the throne of grace because our high priest, Jesus, has made a way for us.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.Psalm 51:1-4
6. Self-Reliance. While we might not say it, deep down we often think “I don’t need to pray, because I can handle it.” When we do pray, often we are essentially praying, ”Lord, please bless my efforts.” We are thinking of ourselves as God. We have our lives under control. Paul Miller writes, “If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.” Is this convicting? What does this look like in your life?
For me, when my child is disobeying I brainstorm some way to manipulate better behavior. Then, at the end of the day I pray, “God, help this to teach her to stop doing that.” Really, that prayer is just an afterthought because I think I know how to solve this problem! But, in reality, we are really desperate for God. Colossians 1:16-17 says, “Christ is before all things and in him all things hold together.” Things don’t depend on us. They depend on him.
The response to self-reliance is believing that we can let go of our anxieties in prayer, because God is the one in control, not us.
When we are tempted to believe we have what it takes to do life on our own, we can be reminded of our complete dependence on God for all things, and pray Psalm 131:
1 My heart is not proud, LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.3 Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.Psalm 131
7. “I don’t have time to pray, because I have so much to do.” “My thoughts are so busy that I can’t focus.” This is the lie of busyness. We say we’re too busy, but what we are really saying is… “I am made for this world only. I’m not an eternal creature with a heavenly perspective.”
If we love people we are going to be busy. We see this in Jesus’s life! There is a really helpful quote in this section of Paul Miller’s book that says “Prayer doesn’t offer us a less busy life. It offers us a less busy heart.” By praying, we can experience God and His peace in the midst of our busy lives.
How can we have a heavenly perspective when we are living in this world? We can pray for love as we go to discipline our children. We can pray for a wisdom when we have no idea how to respond to an attitude of disrespect. We can pray for peace when we are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of our children! Colossians 3:1 says, “If you have been raised with Christ, set your affections on things above. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
This world seems so real to us! But it is passing away. It is not true reality for us. We should not be consumed by the things of this life because we have died to this world, and our identity, our lives, are hidden with Christ in God.
The response to busyness is believing you pray as one who is not of this world.
When we are tempted to believe that the things of this world are more pressing and important than eternal matters, we can pray this Psalm which keeps an eternal perspective on our journey through life:
The good news is, there is forgiveness when we repent of these lies and believe truths. And as we wrestle through these doubts, God is gracious to draw near to us in the midst of them.1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
All credit is due to http://sojournkids.com/
SojournKids is the children’s ministry of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.