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Why We (Don't) Pray
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All blog posts originate from Pastor Bob's website, bobkaylor.com

FIRST IN THE SERIES, “SCHOOL OF PRAYER”
LUKE 11:1-10

“Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” Every time I read that verse, I think to myself, “Yes, Lord, teach me to pray because I’m not very good at it.” The disciples of Jesus were observing him in one of the many times he was at prayer—they admired his ability to connect with God, and I really admire those who have a great prayer life. For some, it comes naturally, but for most of us it’s a learned behavior.

 

Jesus proceeds to take his disciples to school—the school of prayer. And whenever we think about prayer we want to be like kids going back to school. We tend to start out well. We get our new prayer book and Bible, maybe even put on some new prayer clothes, we get out our pencils and journal and we think to ourselves, “This year I’m going to do be an A+ pray-er every day.” But a few weeks into it we become distracted, life creeps in, and we go back to sporadic prayers—the kind that are only prayed in worship, in church meetings, muttered before meals, and lifted when we’re in a desperate situation. The excitement of the first day of school soon becomes the panic of cramming for an exam you forgot was on the syllabus!

 

I get it. I struggle with it myself. If you looked at my bookshelves at home, you’d notice I have tons of prayer and devotional books because every time I have wanted to recommit to prayer I bought a new one thinking, “This is the one that will finally get me in a better habit of prayer.” They are usually bookmarked at about a third of the way through. It’s hard to get in the habit of prayer.

 

Over the past several weeks I’ve found myself having conversations with people who are struggling with prayer. One person asked me if I could recommend some books on prayer because he wanted to develop a prayer life. Another person dealing with a health crisis wondered why the TV preacher’s wife was prayed for and healed from her disease while this person’s prayers seemed to go unanswered. Was it a matter of not having enough faith? Not praying the right way? Another person struggled with the idea of asking God for something, thinking that God is busy enough with the big stuff going on in the world. Why should God care about this little matter?

 

All of that got me thinking—we do need to go back to school on this and get some instruction on prayer, but I think we need to do it in a different way. So often we start with technique—the “how” of prayer, and that’s not bad—we are going to give you some suggestions in the form of a bookmark with the “technique of the week” that you can experiment with in developing a life of prayer. But too often we focus on the “how” and not on the “why,” and I think that’s part of the struggle we have with prayer—we don’t really know how it works, what it’s designed for, and how it fits into the larger work that God is up to in the world. If we can drill down on the “why,” it will make our “how” more purposeful.

 

Before we get there, however, it might be useful to consider the reasons we tend to struggle with prayer in the first place. I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Australian seminary professor Gary Millar on prayer in the Bible and I think he nails the various reasons we wrestle with prayer and tend to pray less in our 21stcentury world:

 

1. Life is easy. Compared to most cultures before us, we have it pretty good. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for their “daily bread,” but, generally, we don’t worry too much about that. We’ve got some things stored up in the pantry and in the bank. We can take care of our basic needs. Most of us live in the top 2% economically in the world, so we’re doing pretty well. Sure, the news media constantly reminds us that there is great danger in the world but we can switch off the news at our leisure. As Neil Postman put it in his important book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, “Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.” We simply disengage and turn the page. We know that God is there, but we’re doing all right. We’ll call when we need him.

 

2. The communication revolution means life is full of distraction. We are bombarded with information on a daily basis and we expect instant answers to any question we might have about anything, all accessible in a device we carry in our pockets. Next time you’re at a restaurant, watch the tables around you—how many people are sitting across from one another but looking at their phones instead of their dining partners? We can’t imagine leaving our phones behind when we go anywhere—it precipitates a crisis. The kids call it FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. All this distraction has made it harder for us to spend any time in silence and prayer, free of distraction. We’re uncomfortable in our own heads and that discomfort leads us to seek the relief we carry in our pockets. It happens in church, too. As Millar puts it, “There is no longer any need count bricks in the church walls when, should the sermon fail to be sufficiently engaging or the prayers too long, we have Candy Crush to play on our smart phones.” When our minds are scattered in the midst of millions of pixels, we find it hard to focus and pray.

 

3. The rise of Bible study groups. This one seems counterintuitive, but it fits with the last one. When Christians gather together it is generally centered around some kind of study where we share more information. The key task is to get through the material, so prayer becomes a kind of perfunctory bookend. It goes something like this: start with a quick prayer, dive into the material, and then find that you’ve taken almost all of the time. At that point the group leader says, “Well, we should probably pray before we head out. Anybody have any requests?.” Inevitably one of two things happens: 1) no one says anything because they know the time is short; or 2) a couple of people will inform the group about their next door neighbor’s friend’s aunt’s gall bladder situation and make people antsy because they’re giving too much detail and things start to run over. Jennifer and I were part of a Bible study group once that ran almost 2 hours, of which about 30 minutes was actual “study” and the rest was long explanations of various ailments and problems. It’s not that those aren’t important—they are—but such an approach to prayer turns it into an arduous chore we’d rather not engage in. Better to keep it short and sweet.

 

4. The availability of good teaching. It’s now possible for people to access any teaching they want online. In fact, more and more people are eschewing the fellowship of a local church in order to listen to the hottest preachers with the biggest churches. It used to be that church people got their primary teaching from their pastor, which meant that they knew them intimately, including their struggles. Indeed, people knew they need to pray for the pastor because he or she was it. As one of my African-American preacher friends says, there are sometimes people in the congregation who will yell out, “Help him, Jesus, help him!” if the sermon seems to be going awry! These days, however, we don’t need to pray for the preacher in front of us, we can just press “Play” and expect the distant preacher to deliver the goods. The connection between prayer and sermon is broken.

 

Now, I know that there are many of you out there who pray for me during the sermon and before. You may want to yell out, “Help him, Jesus, help him!” and I would not object! I need those prayers. We need to be in this together. Sermons aren’t consumer messages—they are the product of prayer and community. When we forget that, we also forget to pray.

 

5. We live in a pragmatic culture. We live in a culture that is always trying to “fix” things and that’s true even in the church. We tend to gravitate toward a skills-based model of church life. We like to focus on preaching, evangelism, church growth, administration, and strategic thinking—stuff that we can put on a PowerPoint presentation and measure. These are things we can tinker with and fix. Prayer? Not so much. “We are more in control of our lives than any other generation. And that means we pray less.” We’re uncomfortable with things we can’t always control, that don’t immediately “fix” the problem we’re dealing with. When someone says, “I’ll pray about it,” we know that’s the right answer, but secretly we wonder whether it will actually work. In fact, that leads to the last reason which is perhaps the biggest barrier to prayer:

 

6. We are a cynical people. We are surrounded by cynicism every day, thus we tend to be cynical. We tend to be pessimistic as well (the definition of a pessimist? An optimist with experience). There is great pressure all around us each day to not believe in something, therefore we find it hard to pray. It seems unrealistic, and even for those of us who are believers it’s difficult. We’ve all experience being burned by prayer—we were told that prayer would fix everything for us and it didn’t. So we tend to give up, thinking that our prayers are just shouting into the wind. We want results and when they don’t fall the way we want, we wonder, “Why pray at all?”

 

Do any of these reasons for why we don’t pray hit home? I think they do for most of us. More technique won’t help us to overcome them, however, and neither will more exhortations to go and pray. What we need is a fundamental reorientation to prayer. The more I have studied this, the more I have come to see that there is a whole lot we have missed when it comes to teaching on prayer. In this series, I want us to look at it with fresh eyes and through the lens of the Bible’s teaching on prayer. Jesus surely had all that in mind when he taught the disciples, and if we’re willing to put down our phones and suspend our cynicism for a while, it might just change our lives.

 

What do we need to relearn? Here are a few things that will be on the syllabus for the next few weeks:

 

1. We need to learn how to recalibrate how we pray in light of the biblical theology on prayer. If we look at the teaching of the whole Bible on prayer, we come to realize that prayer is, essentially, a function of the whole gospel. God’s agenda is nothing less than transforming us into the likeness of Jesus, and the more we understand this the more we begin to realize our inadequacy and our greatest need. Paul Miller says that “learned desperation is the heart of a praying life” and that desperation comes when we see the massive scope of God’s plans for us and for his creation. We also see how much we need God to change us so that we can help others change as well. As Millar puts it, “The core of the gospel is that we have nothing, contribute nothing, bring nothing to God—we are rescued by grace alone through faith—asking—alone. It should not come as a shock that prayer, which is made possible by the gospel and shaped by by the gospel, works exactly the same way.”

 

It’s in this context that Jesus invited his disciples to “ask” in prayer—in fact, we might define biblical prayer as asking God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. All the words in the Bible for ‘prayer’ mean the same thing: “Ask.” We admit our weakness and appeal to his strength. That strength is bound up in God’s covenant with his people—from Israel to Jesus to the church. Biblically speaking, then, prayer is simply asking God to deliver on what he has already promised. This is the thread that runs through the whole Bible—by praying, we demonstrate that we are part of God’s covenant people and trust God to do what he has said. Our prayers are thus to be much bigger than a list of things we want God to do for us or for a loved one—they are a participation in God’s plan for the whole creation.

 

This is why Jesus tells his disciples to pray for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven—that’s a big prayer, asking God to do what he has promised—to bring heaven and earth together. To pray that prayer, then, is to become part of that mission. We begin to work for what we pray for. That’s the context of “ask and you will receive”—it is prayer as asking for God to bring about the fulfillment of the gospel. That leads us to the second thing we need to relearn about prayer…

 

2. Prayer is always going to be hard work. In Colossians 4:12, Paul writes about Epaphrus, who is “struggling on your behalf in his prayers.” We often think prayer should be easy, but the truth is that it’s a struggle—it’s a struggle because we live in a fallen world; but it’s also a struggle because prayer is intricately linked to God’s lifelong work of transforming us. Transformation is a struggle! We wrestle with sin, we fight with temptation, we groan and sweat over the brokenness in us and in our world. Prayer is no quick fix—it’s hard work. So, if you are here today and you find praying difficult, good! You are on the right track!

 

3. Prayer requires patience. Oh, we’d love for prayer to be a like a cosmic vending machine that spits out what we want at the push of a button. Some people pray like this, as though it’s a formula, an incantation that if you just do it right or do it enough that God will do what they want. But that’s a pagan view of prayer, as we will see next week. Authentic prayer recognizes that we will not always see our prayers answered in the way and in the timing that we want, but it’s also an invitation to look for interim answers to big prayers. Prayer invites us to look more closely, to lean into what God is up to and how God might be “moving the needle” bit by bit in our world.

 

Jesus told his disciples that prayer was a lot like a persistent neighbor who won’t leave you alone until you come through for him. He invites us to pray like that neighbor, giving God no rest until God delivers on his promises. That’s the boldness of prayer and the reason we need to recapture a good theology and practice of prayer that is grounded in the gospel.

 

I want to suggest that what we’re going to learn together over the next few weeks is critical to our work and our future as a church. A couple of weeks ago at Camp Meeting, I said that we need to be a church filled with hope in the midst of exile—and hope, biblically speaking, is fueled by prayer. E.M. Bounds, who was one of the great Methodist preachers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, put it this way:

 

“What the Church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations and novel methods, but people whom the Holy Ghost can use—people of prayer, people mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods but through people. He does not come on machinery, but on people. He does not anoint plans, but people—people of prayer.

 

It’s time to go back to school, my friends. Let’s start the school of prayer together!

 

Source:

Millar, Gary. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer. New Studies in Biblical Theology Series (ed. D.A. Carson). Intervarsity, 2016. p. 233-240.



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