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

Discouragement in Prayer

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

Luke 18:1

 This is the opening of Jesus’ famous parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge. The parable itself is a fascinating piece of teaching by Jesus, but I would like to ask a question that arises before he even gets into the story. Why does Jesus teach a parable specifically to encourage persistence in prayer? The counterintuitive answer is that he gives this teaching because discouragement is the most normal experience in the life of prayer. The Greek word translated “lose heart” here means to be deflated, weary, tired, despairing, in a mood to quit. That describes most Christians sometimes and some Christians all the time. Oddly, what Jesus is basically saying is that prayer, by its very nature in this age, will be at times a very frustrating exercise. Why is it this way? Let me offer at least three possible reasons.

 

First, answers to prayer do not usually come quickly enough to keep our attention. Many divine responses come long after we have given up praying for the thing! Our gnat-like attention spans lose track of the request long before the answer arrives and so we are not impressed. On top of that many of us are closet skeptics anyway, and so are prepared to interpret events as coincidences or accidents unless they happen immediately.

 

Second, answers to prayer rarely present as “miracles.” The Lord isn’t in the entertainment business and much of his work slides under our sensory radar unless we calibrate our awareness to look for him. Also, we expect a certain sort of answer and he often solves the problem in a completely unexpected and unimpressive way. When this happens it doesn’t occur to us that he did the thing, because it wasn’t quite the thing we requested.

 

Third, time itself is a crucial element in all that God does in this fallen era. Speed does not improve God’s work, either in our hearts or in our circumstances. Any cook knows that time in the oven is just as crucial as any other ingredient in the recipe. Especially relational issues are this way; friendships, romances, business partnerships, anything that relies on humans to know and trust each other, will take time—usually more of it than we want to invest. This is why the Psalms are filled with exhortations to wait on the Lord.

 

All three of these issues conspire to discourage us in prayer. So, the Lord says we must not give up. A rule of thumb that I use is that if I am severely tempted to give up praying for something important, that’s the time to specifically stay at it. It’s good to know that being discouraged is a normal part of being a prayer partner in any meaningful aspect of God’s work.

 

So, let us pray …

 

Christian Prayer

In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.

John 16:26-27

New Covenant prayer is arguably the single greatest practical privilege we have as Christians. Jesus is basically telling his friends that soon they will be able to pray the same way he does—directly to God as their Father based on a personal covenant love relationship that cannot fail. This is a distinctly new sort of experience he bestows on his disciples, or he wouldn’t have been as excited about it as he was. He is far more enthused about our potential prayer life than we are (Lk.11:1-13; 18:1-8; Jn.15:16; 16:23-24).  Note four things he says in this passage about Christian prayer:

First, prayer is in his name. That makes it in some mysterious and powerful way an improvement over prayer offered under the Old Covenant. A Christian is metaphysically joined to the authority and identity of Christ, the Messiah, God’s own Son (the name), by simple faith (“believing that I came from God”).  And because we are under his grace and authority we come into the Father’s presence in a relationship to him unknown prior to Christ (Rom.8:14-17; Heb.4:14-16). Before the gospel, before the work of the cross, this was not available. Jesus (shockingly) said that among the OT believers there was nobody greater than John the Baptist (A very radical thought in light of all the great names in the Old Testament!). And yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater (in a better position) than John (Lk.7:28). He must be referring to the work of regeneration and justification that comes in Christ to the simplest Christian, and with that New Covenant work—the right to pray like the Son of God himself. Wow!

Second, we call God “Father” when we talk to him, just like Jesus did. This was not done prior to Christ and was in fact one of the outstanding characteristics of his own prayer life. It is not found in any other religion and not available through any other message than the gospel of Christ. This means that what passes for “prayer” in much of the world, because it is emphatically not in the name of Christ, is not anything like what goes on in the smallest gathering of the most humble Christians. Wow!

Third, the Father hears us directly and personally, just like he heard Jesus. Jesus says that he will not ask the Father on our behalf, but our prayers are heard immediately by God himself. This means, among other things, that we don’t need other angelic or saintly “mediators” to “get God’s ear” for us (1 Tim.2:5; Heb.4:14-16). This does not mean that Christ does not speak to the Father about us. He does (Heb.7:25; 1 Jn.2:1-2). But it does mean that our access to the Father is, like Jesus’ access, instant, constant, secure, personal, and effective through the Holy Spirit (Rom.8:26). Wow!

Fourth, the Father hears our prayers because he loves us. Because we love Jesus, the Father loves us like he loves his own son. Consider the fact that God loves you as much as he loves Christ Jesus himself. In fact, he gave his son up to die for us so that he could have us in his family forever (Rom.8:31-32). Most of us simply do not believe this, and because we don’t believe it we feel less confident than we should about our prayers. Wow!

So, Christian prayer is a unique and powerful right. It is not like pagan prayer, Old Covenant prayer, New Age prayer, non-Christian religious prayer, or mystical meditation on the numinous. It is personal, perpetual, open communication with the God of the universe as our Father. Let us pray.

Pastor Rick