Thursday, March 19, 2015

Praying is a Battle

In previous posts, we looked at how praying is "scary" and "easy."  Prayer is easy because any child can do it, and praying can be scary because it forces us to be vulnerable before God and others.  When you put the simplicity of prayer together with the fear it often induces, you end up experiencing the great challenge of prayer:  it is something that should be easy, but isn't.  Since it is so easy, it shouldn't be scary, but it is.  These tensions and conflicts lie within prayer itself.  We are sinful creatures, weak creatures, crying out to a Holy God, an all-powerful God.  We need to draw near to God, it is our joy to draw near.  And yet, we all, like Adam and Eve, hide from him, and we all, like the prodigal son, run from him as well.  Sometimes, trying to draw near to God in prayer feels like trying to push together the ends of two magnets with the same polarity.

I have a friend whose will-power is legendary.  He seems to be able to make himself do literally anything.  As a result, he is able to work long hours and manage many complex areas of responsibility outside of work as well.  (I often envy this ability!) But there are two things that he cannot consistently make himself do by his own will:  pray daily and get his family to church on time.  He actually does both of these things rather well, in my opinion, but for him, these are the two most difficult tasks in his life.  

Why is this?  Have you ever felt this way: that praying, though so simple, seems like the most difficult thing in the world to do? I know I have.  Why is it a battle to pray?

  • We can't see God. The most obvious reason that prayer is difficult is because we are having a conversation with Someone whom we can't see, and who does not talk back to us very often (at least not in an audible voice).  This makes prayer a kind of talking unlike any other.  And just as it takes doctors years to adapt to talking in medical terms, and just as it takes children years to understand how to talk on the phone, so talking in this manner (to One unseen) takes time and practice.  If we never talk to God, we'll never learn how.

  • Relational focus is more difficult than other kinds. Regardless of who we are talking to, the relational focus required for conversation takes energy.   This is doubly true of a conversation with God, one that is outside the normal way we talk with people.  But, just like other areas of life, this capacity in us can be strengthened with use, by God's grace. Martin Luther, for example, would pray for hours a day, even with his busy schedule (he managed 11 monasteries, pastored a church, wrote copious amounts of material, and taught university classes).  Monks and many other modern day mystics (some of whom are just normal people like you and me) can spend hours in prayer as well.  

  • Unseen spiritual forces work against us. I can't prove it, but it seems like something unseens is working against me when I pray.  I can wake up at 5am to go to an appointment, I can wake up at 5am to read… even to read the Bible.  But when it comes to waking up to pray: the snooze button seems glued to my fingers, and the bed more comfortable than ever.  Often, even when I get to my place of prayer, I find it a battle to focus.  While I have a few "tricks up my sleeve" to help me focus (ask me if you'd like to know), I believe there are unseen spiritual forces at work trying to keep me from prayer.  Many many other Christians I know have felt this same thing.  

  • We are sinful. The biggest reason praying is a battle is because of sinful nature.  There is a part of us still that does not want to be near and obey God.  St. Paul says it best: "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:21–25)

  • We sin. Because we have a sinful nature in us, we sin.  These sins are often "things left undone," including prayer.  It is a sin to live a life of prayerlessness. 

Given these things: how can we win the battle?  How can we become people "of prayer"?  Here's a few short principles that help me.

  • Pray often.  I find the more I pray, the better I am able to do it.  When I've gone through a season of prayerlessness, it is really tough to get back on the wagon.  "For physical training is of some value, but [training in] godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." (1 Timothy 4:8)

  • Be confident in God's powerful help.  One of my life-verses goes like this: "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (Philippians 2:12–13)  The ONLY hope we have to obey Him is His POWER working in us.  ""I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5–6) (See also Galatians 5:16ff; Col 1:28-29; Ps 32:8-9; 2 Pe 1:3).  And Jesus is the ONLY hope we have an against any unseens spiritual forces that work against us in times of prayer. "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." (1 John 4:4)  See also Ephesians 6:10ff for a great study on this! 

  • Be confident in God's love for you even when you fail to pray.  Romans 2:4 illumines one of the great truths about obedience to God: "...God's kindness leads you toward repentance..." (Romans 2:4)  It is because God loves us that we can come back to him even after we've strayed.  And we know He loves us because we know the gospel.  Think about it: If you know someone is going to bite your head off, are you going to admit faults to them?  NO!  We only have courage to admit our weaknesses and faults to those who love us.  Similarly, if you know God loves you (because the gospel tells you so!), when you fall into periods of prayerlessness, you can repent with confidence.  He is ready to receive you back!  His love for you was never based on your goodness and obedience anyway, but on the obedience of Jesus.  "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:16)

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