This is not a new revelation but most of us are not good at prayer. Now I stress strongly that I’m speaking as one failure to another. Nevertheless, in the light of this real concern about our prayerlessness, I hope this article will be a refreshment and a tonic – maybe even a kick-start! – for our prayer lives.
What is prayer?
It’s very easy to think and speak about prayer as if it’s some abstract exercise – one of those things Christians ‘do’. And so we think: how can I get better at this thing called prayer? If you do think of prayer like that, the solution to a better prayer life is always going to be practical tips and techniques. So you sort out a prayer diary, get a prayer list app for your phone, use Operation World, try praying out loud, and have your quiet time first thing in the morning.
However, that’s not the heart of prayer. The Lord says of Israel, ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13). Prayer is not an abstract ‘thing to do’, for you can ‘do’ prayer and get it all wrong. There is something vital underneath all the pragmatics.
So what is prayer? It’s never been put better than by John Calvin, who in his excellent little chapter on prayer in the Institutes calls prayer ‘the chief exercise of faith’. In other words, prayer is the primary way true faith expresses itself.
In one sense your prayer life is disgustingly revealing. Your prayer life reveals how much you really want communion with God and how much you really depend on him. It absolutely does not tell you about your security as an unrejectable child of God, but it does tell you how much of a baby you are spiritually, how much of a hypocrite you are, and how much you actually love the Lord.
Yet don’t be dismayed! You’re not the odd one out in your struggles with prayer, and it’s not your secret shame. You’re just a sinner, naturally inclined away from faith and prayer. We’re all sinners. And you know who the friend of sinners is! Jesus.
Praying like Jesus
When you come to Jesus, prayer changes. Jesus is the Lord; he is Immanuel, God with us. But he prays. In fact, he’s always praying. When full of joy, he’d pray; when agonising, he’d pray; when making major decisions like appointing apostles, he’d spend a good bit of time in prayer.
Jesus’ prayers also show us who, eternally, he is. John tells us, ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself’ (John 5:19). The Son always depends on his Father. And so for eternity he has enjoyed communion with him and he has prayed to him.
The Son, then, is the first pray-er. And the salvation he brings is a sharing of his own communion with his Father. Prayer is learning to enjoy what Jesus has always enjoyed.
Praying to God as our Father
With that, we come to Luke 11: ‘When you pray, say: Father …’ (Luke 11:1). The first thing Jesus would have pray-ers know is the name Father. The relationship he has always had with his Father he now shares with us – and it transforms prayer. Christ has brought this holy God to be our open-armed Father. Thus Jesus invites us – in fact, commands us! – to pray ‘our Father’.
Jim Packer once wrote, ‘If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means he does not understand Christianity very well at all.’ Packer’s right, for to address God as Father and mean it is to understand the gospel well.
And that is prayer: relating to the Father as our Father.
Depending on God
If God was a single, independent person, independence would be the godly thing. That would be how to be like him. But because the Son always depends on the Father, dependence is the nature of Christian godliness. Being a Christian is first and foremost all about receiving, asking and depending. It’s when you don’t feel needy (and so when you don’t pray much) that you lose your grip on reality and think or act in an unchristian manner. In fact, as you grow as a Christian, you should feel not more self-sufficient but ever more needy.
Prayer, then, is enjoying the care of a powerful Father, instead of being left to a frightening loneliness where everything is all down to you.
The Spirit helps us
The Son does all that he does in the power of the Spirit. The Spirit stirs up the Son to commune with the Father. Luke records that ‘Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father’ (Luke 10:21). That is the Spirit’s work in the Son, and that is his work in the children of God. The same principle is explained in Romans. ‘The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba! Father.”’ (Rom. 8:15).
The Spirit is the wind in the sails of our prayer. In prayer God speaks through us to God. We’re brought into the divine fellowship. The Spirit of the Son cries to the Father through us.
Paul then goes on: ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans’ (Rom. 8:26). That’s an enormously helpful verse. The Spirit knows that we’re weak, that we struggle to pray and that we often don’t know what to pray – and his desire is to help us. This means that we don’t need to pretend to be giants in prayer or make resolutions that are out of our league. Since the Spirit knows our weakness, we can be real with our Father, accepting how babyish we are in our faith, and simply stammer out what’s on our hearts. In fact, that’s just the way to grow in our relationship with God. True intimacy is an acquired thing, something that develops – but it only develops with honesty. So if your prayer life is a bit ropey, I suggest starting again by stammering like a child to a Father. Cry for help. Don’t try to be impressive.
Enjoying the life of God
I hope these truths can encourage you. Prayer is not an abstract activity; it is the chief exercise of faith. It would be wonderful if you could now find whatever privacy you can to spend time with our Father thinking about your communion with God. Think about what your prayers are actually like. Perhaps it’s time for a little self-exercise of diagnosis: if prayer is the chief exercise of faith, why don’t you pray? Be honest. The reasons could be revealing. Do you feel you don’t have the time? That’s revealing of self-dependence, probably. Do you not see the Father as one you actually want to spend time with? That’s revealing, and you’ll need a new sight of the glory of Christ to re-awaken faith. Might it be that, deep down, you struggle to believe this truly is the Lord’s world? Prayerlessness often indicates that mindset. Have a think. But as you reflect, be encouraged by one of the psalms: ‘The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth’ (Ps. 145:18). With this in mind, let’s go exercise our faith and pray!
This extract from ‘Enjoy your Prayer Life’ by Michael Reeves is used with kind permission from 10Publishing.