Four Lies That Keep Us from Prayer
From Gospel Translations
Rarely do I approach a set-aside time of prayer without thinking of at least one reason, and often more than one, to do something else instead.
Some of the reasons sound plausible: “I need the sleep” or “I have so much work to do.” Others, less so: “I wonder who won the game” or “I should really check my email.” I’m learning to expect such reasons to intrude themselves when it comes time to pray. I’m also learning to call these reasons by their real names: lies.
Now, of course, these reasons are not always lies. Sleep, for example, is among the essential matters of life, and we can honor our God on our pillows just as we can on our knees (Psalm 127:1–2). But when these reasons regularly steal away the time we planned to pray, they have become lies — convenient deceits to keep us from the flesh-killing, hell-thwarting, God-glorifying work of prayer.
If we could take the masks off these lies and look them in the face, we might just see that they can’t be trusted. Consider, then, four lies that hide behind our prayerlessness, and how the Lord Jesus exposes each of them.
‘I don’t have time to pray.’
Of all the falsehoods that keep us from our knees, this clever line often looks most like truth. “I don’t have time” sounds like simple fact, a matter of mathematical necessity. “The day’s 24 hours are already full,” we think; “prayer will need to wait until tomorrow.”
Such was not how our Savior reasoned. Once, when he healed a man of leprosy, he found himself pressed round by the people of Galilee. They already clamored to be near him (Luke 5:1), but now “even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities” (Luke 5:15). The mission was succeeding; throngs were coming — and not only to be healed, but “to hear him.” Surely, in this season of unusual ministry demands, Jesus would be justified to skip prayer in order to teach these lost sheep?
We read next, “but he would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). Jesus’s schedule was not dictated by the day’s loudest voices. He was never deceived, as we so regularly are, that this or that important task must take the place of private communion with his Father.
Those who would devote themselves to prayer must be prepared, as Jesus was, to say no to a dozen second-best opportunities (at least for the moment). Those who follow Jesus in such obedience exchange self-sufficiency for dependence on our Father, superficial busyness for genuine productivity, the tyranny of the urgent for the governance of the Spirit.
‘Prayer isn’t worth the effort.’
Few Christians would be bold enough to voice this lie. But how many of us avoid the prayer closet because we believe that prayer is just not worth the effort? Perhaps we have tried praying for focused, extended periods, only to find our minds too distractible, our wills too flimsy, and the returns too meager to motivate us for more.
This lie contains a half-truth: prayer, as Jesus forewarned us, involves tenacious effort. When Jesus told his disciples “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1), he was assuming that they would sometimes pray and be tempted to lose heart. As with the widow in Jesus’s parable (Luke 18:1–8), genuine prayer requires seasons of asking without receiving, of seeking without finding, of knocking on a door that seems barricaded from the inside (Matthew 7:7).
But alongside that realism, Jesus dismantles the lie that we exert such effort in vain. All sincere, faithful asking gives way to receiving, all seeking leads to finding, and all knocking opens a door filled with hope no longer deferred (Matthew 7:8). Our Father knows how to repay our struggles in prayer with “good things” (Matthew 7:11) — the best of which is more of his goodness. If prayer gives us a deeper glimpse of his glory, then every moment of corralling our attention, denying our flesh, and bending our heads back down is worth it.
And on the days when our prayers seem to go nowhere, we would do well to remember C.S. Lewis’s counsel: “When we carry out our ‘religious duties,’ we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last the water comes, it may find them ready” (Reflections on the Psalms, 97). Some days in prayer, we simply dig and wait for rain. Other days, we drink. But there is no drinking without digging.
‘I can handle today without prayer.’
As with the last lie, few Christians, if any, would speak this sentence out loud. But many of us still find a hundred ways of saying it without words. When I, for example, make a habit of walking into my day with a full stomach, and aware of the news, and with a complete night of sleep, but prayerless, I am saying, “I cannot handle today without breakfast, information, or my full eight hours, but I can handle today without prayer.”
The power of this lie comes, in part, from the testimony of our experience. Many of us have made it through a prayerless day without wrecking our lives. Perhaps some of us even have found that we can get on surprisingly well without prayer: we can earn our paychecks, raise our children, and make our grades with scarcely a Godward glance.
Such pragmatism forgets the solemn words of our Lord: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from prayerful dependence on Jesus (John 15:7), we can do nothing: nothing that will glorify God, nothing that will endure for eternity. The results of our prayerless efforts may indeed look like something — even something quite impressive — but they are, in God’s sight, a spiritual zero. We are building mansions on a sinking ship.
If our aim is to succeed in a world that “is passing away” (1 John 2:17), then yes, we can handle today without prayer. But if our aim is to do something that will hallow God’s name, something that will make angels applaud, something that will echo even through eternity, then prayer is as necessary as breathing.
‘God doesn’t hear me when I pray.’
Before exposing this lie, we should remember that unrepentant sin does in fact close God’s ears to our prayers. As the psalmist says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). In such a case, “God doesn’t hear me” is not a lie but a tough truth, one that can mercifully be remedied through repentance.
Many of us, however, feel the absence of God in prayer simply because we are embattled saints, afflicted by flesh within and devils without, too easily forgetting why, of all people, we Christians have the privilege of addressing God as “you who hear prayer” (Psalm 65:2). And why is that privilege ours? Because, Jesus tells his disciples, in the age of the new covenant, “you will ask in my name” (John 16:26).
If we knocked on heaven’s door on our own, asking to be heard on the basis of our own name, our own merits, we would have every reason to doubt that God would hear and open to us. But we do not pray in our own name. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Father’s dearly Beloved, who came into the world precisely to bring us to the Father (John 16:27; 17:3, 6). If we are in him, then our voices are no farther from the Father than the Son at his right hand (John 16:28; Hebrews 4:14–16).
True, we may sometimes feel as if our God were a world away, far removed from the sound of our groaning. We may sit in that silence for months or even years, the tempter suggesting that our Father’s ears have finally closed to us. But even then, we can say with the prophet Micah, “As for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (Micah 7:7).
Every lie falls away before the wonder of those five words my God will hear me. If God himself will open his ear to our requests, and bend his shoulder to our burdens, and raise his radiant face to our praises, then no barrier can keep us from him. Busyness, trouble, and self-sufficiency may still suggest that we do something else, but we will know what to say: “My God — my glorious, satisfying, burden-bearing God — will hear me. I’m praying.”