THE CHALLENGE, FRUSTRATION, AND SATISFACTION OF PRAYER

I just counted the books in the prayer section on my book shelf and I have over 25 of them. I’m pretty sure I have read all of them, and would think I’d be much better at prayer than I am. The title of one of the books, The Struggle of Prayer by Donald G. Bloesch, probably describes a lot of us in terms of our practice of prayer. It certainly does me.

I can relate to Professor W. David O. Taylor’s assessment, “My own prayer life comes and goes. At times I have prayed faithfully every morning before starting the day’s work. At other times I have managed only tired prayers at the end of the day, and they often have not been very good prayers. At still other times I have found myself without prayer, or, more truthfully, without any desire to pray.”

I want to pray, and I want to pray regularly, but that is a challenge for me. After all these years I have still not settled into a daily and consistent routine of prayer. I think Anthony Delaney’s observation that “we pray a lot more when we are trouble than when everything’s going well” is spot on. And I think he’s right because what he says is true for me.

The Bible says a lot of about prayer as well as gives us a lot of examples of prayer. Jesus clearly expects us to pray as three times in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-7) he tells us “when you pray . . .” what to do and what not to do. In verses 9-13 he gives us a model to follow. In his final instructions to the Thessalonians in his first letter the Apostle Paul tells them “pray continually” (I Thessalonians 5:17).

Pastor and author John Starke encourages me with his suggestion that “the Bible imagines prayer to be a very ordinary thing for very ordinary people.” (In other words, you don’t have to be a spiritual giant to pray.) And then he convicts me with his observation that “It’s not an overstatement to say that the most transformative thing you can do is to begin to spend unhurried time with God on a regular basis for the rest of your life.”

Professor Taylor’s definition of prayer also encourages me: “Prayer is a funny thing, of course, it is about talking to God and listening to God. In practice, prayer is anything but simple.” I think praying can be simple, but listening to God in prayer for me is more challenging.

I think for many who pray, what can be frustrating is what we consider no response from God. With simple honesty, in one of his books Scot McKnight notes “we lay ourselves before God and sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t.” As I have heard many believers say, God sometimes says “yes,” sometimes he says “no,” and sometimes he says “wait.” It’s the “no” answer and the “wait” answer that frustrates many who pray.

I would not charge anyone whose prayer answers were “no” or “wait” of being guilty of his warning, but Pastor Dustin Crowe’s words are worth our consideration, “If honest, many of us pray self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish prayers that sound more like ‘my kingdom come, my will be done’ than ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

In his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer C.S. Lewis makes a powerful point. He says the clearest asking prayer in the Bible is Jesus’ request in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Lewis writes, “He asked, but did not get what he asked for. But he asked with a reservation—‘nevertheless, not my will but thine.’ This makes an enormous difference.”

I’m thinking the challenge and the frustration of prayer are both real, but my prayer life could be much more satisfying if I would follow Jesus’ example and ask with the reservation he did.

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GROWING IN PRAYER

I have no way of knowing for sure, but my sense is that far more people pray than those who don’t. Not only that, my sense also is that many of those who do pray often wish they were better at praying. I am one of those who would like to grow in prayer.

A beginning point in learning to pray is the example Jesus set in his prayer life. Luke 11:1 tells us, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’.” His response was what we call The Lord’s Prayer and a model for us.

During the last couple of months I have been thinking and reading about prayer and how I can do better in my prayer life. One of the books I read that was the most encouraging and challenging was by Robert Benson entitled In Constant Prayer (pub. by Thomas Nelson, 2008). Here are some selections that I found motivating.

“At some point, we have to move from talking about prayer to saying our prayers” (p. 81). I don’t particularly like the phrase saying our prayers, but I was convicted to stop talking about prayer to actually praying. Benson noted “The only way to become a writer is to write” (p. 96). I paraphrase his next observation: you do not become a person of prayer and then begin to pray. If you pray enough, you may yet become a person of prayer. People of prayer pray every day.

Two chapters later Benson slapped me in the face so to speak with this affirmation: “it is far more likely that we do not recognize God’s presence in our lives than it is that God is not present in our lives” (p.130, emphasis added). My takeaway is that one of the ways we can better recognize God’s presence in our lives is through growing in prayer.

Near the end of the book his honesty both challenged and encouraged me with his acknowledgement: “Sometimes I feel as though I have traveled far on this rode. But the truth is that in a way I am in the same place I was when I began all those years ago” (p.147). Based on what I had read in the previous pages I could not help but think he was being a little too hard on himself.

Benson also reminds readers that there is “the need for us to pray corporately as well as to pray personally” (p. 148). I have been present and participated many times in corporate prayer. Some have been moving and meaningful and others have been a mixed bag. Some of the most satisfying times of prayer for me have been in small groups, some with just me and my prayer partner of several years.

I’m for corporate prayer and believe Christians should be praying together. But my desire and challenge to readers of this post is to take steps to grow in our personal prayers – even if we begin with baby steps.

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