Prayer as a Waste of Time

It is a commonplace, not to say a cliché, to refer to prayer as “hard work.” I have never read a book on the subject in which the author did not mention the fact that prayer seems like strenuous effort, real work. This is biblical. Paul in Romans 15:30 exhorted his friends to “strive together” with him in prayer for his ministry. That Greek word means to “agonize together.” It conjures a vision of a tug of war where you are pulling hard together against serious odds. Jesus treats prayer similarly. In Luke 18 he tells the “parable of the unrighteous judge” specifically to encourage people to pray and not “lose heart.” Why did he feel the need to encourage in this way? Because quitting prayer is easy to do. It is strenuous.

But why is prayer such an effort for so many of us? How hard is it to talk? Especially to somebody who doesn’t argue with you on the spot or hijack the conversation? Come on! How arduous should this really be?

The “hard work” of prayer isn’t physical of course, but emotional, mental, and spiritual. Perhaps the most outstanding existential feeling in prayer is a feeling that we absolutely hate—the feeling of wasting time. That’s right. Very often praying feels like we are squandering our valuable hours (Minutes? Seconds? Nano-seconds?), and possibly God’s as well (If he already knows, why should I ask?). I believe that the feeling of time-wasting is the primary mental strain involved in serious secret intercession (Matt.6:6). It’s a strain on our active minds to hold them in check and focus them on issues that we have no personal power over, while talking seriously to a Person we cannot see. The fact is that we get antsy. And controlling that agitated feeling is a big part of the “work” we do in prayer. We can think a lot faster than we can talk, which means it’s hard for us to stay on task mentally. On top of that, we feel guilty for thinking about all the other things we should be doing instead of praying! (I keep a pad and pencil handy to write down the things that crowd my mind during prayer, so that I can delay the gratification of doing them until after prayer).

Here’s what I suggest for this situation. Embrace the fact that praying should at times feel like wasting time. What?! You ask. Why should I embrace such an unspiritual thought?  Well, because it is that feeling that stretches and exercises your faith (which is the opposite of sight, right? 2 Cor.5:7) and makes you put your money where your mouth is. If God is not there, you are wasting your time. Ask Richard Dawkins. On the other hand, if God is there, you are investing the most valuable time in the best way. Ask Jesus. The strain of forcing yourself to reject the atheist intuition (that God isn’t there and that your works are all that matter) and lean into the spiritual reality of the gospel, is precisely the feeling of spiritual formation at its most basic level. When our agitated, activistic, caffeine-saturated brains are “re-minded” that the Lord is really here, and we insist against our basic old-self-reliance and antsy-ness that we can and will talk to him right now and for an extended period about specific things—that is the feeling of growing in faith! Which is an answer to our prayer for spiritual maturity! Faith develops when we insist on acting precisely as if the Lord is right here, listening to our every word, when in fact we cannot see him or the immediate effect of our intercession. So, isolate that time-squandering idea and press right through it. You’re growing like an oak tree through an asphalt driveway.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick