June 18, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
It won’t be news to you to know that the percentage of people is high who purchase gym memberships and then either never go or stop going before their contact expires. One source says that 30% stop going within 21 days. January tends to be the high-water mark in a given year for new memberships. Yet, somewhere around January 21 tends to be the saddest day of the year when new year’s resolutions—including fitness—have all but disappeared.
You can understand the struggle to maintain commitment. There’s a cost to giving yourself faithfully to exercise: your schedule has to change; you have to pack the workout bag; you have to find a routine that doesn’t become too wearisome; you soon find why “no pain, no gain” became an adage; and the strong, vital, svelte life just doesn’t appear overnight.
So it’s difficult to exit the cyclical rut of inspiration, resolution, execution, frustration, enervation, and disillusion. At some point, you have to feel like what you’re doing is making a difference. The motive has to change from guilt to an appreciation of wellness. The experience has to change from drudgery to strenuous delight.
It can be just as agonizing to extricate oneself from the cyclical rut of trying and failing to cultivate a genuinely prayerful life.
You can hear of prayer’s importance (as you did again last Sunday). You can hear the what, the how, and the why of prayer afresh, and resolve that very moment to commit yourself to prayer. You can set up a plan for praying more often, more systematically. And you can start with great expectation that you will become able to say confidently, but not arrogantly, that you believe in prayer.
But, inevitably, the new burst of enthusiasm for prayer is met with a commensurate blowback of antagonisms, mostly from our own armchair theologizing:
“Why pray, if God is sovereign? He already knows what I’ll ask, and He would do His will regardless of my so-called prayerful intervention.”
“If some, or many, of my prayer requests aren’t answered, wouldn’t it be better to avoid setting myself up for disappointment?”
Some will say to themselves they’re just too busy. But that’s really a pretext for the belief that they themselves can fulfill their desires more effectively than prayer can. Others might begin to languish in prayer when they conclude that the Lord will not hear the prayers of sinful people.
Few, if any, of these soul-dampening thoughts are illegitimate concerns. We’ve been rehearsing them for as long as we’ve been praying. The question remains, though: must we always be at the mercy of these hindrances to a life of prayerfulness? Can nothing extricate us from their rut?
Instruction in prayer, or a prayer system, or accountability—all those elements certainly help. But believing the gospel is the only sufficient ground for prayerfulness.
What the gospel accomplished has implications for our prayers. If the Lord did the impossible in raising His Son from the dead, there are no impossible things we may not pray for. If the Lord conquered death in His Son, may we not ask Him to conquer pride in the human heart? To give hope where despondency threatens, and humility where complacency sings its siren call? The gospel’s power and majesty guide the scope of our prayers.
Perhaps more to our concern, the gospel crystallizes and fortifies the motive for prayer. To believe the gospel is to understand how dependent you are—not just for God’s wrath to be solved, but for the kind of heart that loves the things of God for God’s sake alone. Grasping the extent of your dependence on God for any substantial good thing can’t help but turn you to praying. To know your need is to make asking for help more instinctual.
To believe the gospel is also to trust that because of Christ, the Lord’s acceptance of you is unbreakable. Despite your frailty and flaw, your folly and fear, the Lord loves those who look to the Son. Believing that leads you to prayer; you can’t help but be transparent with someone who loves you like that.
When Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner said, “He prayeth well who loveth well,” he meant that love will inevitably manifest itself in prayer. Yet standing behind the love that issues in prayer is a love that liberated it. That’s the love of the gospel. So we end up praying not in order to please God but because He is already pleased with us.
Prayer then ceases to become a discipline to acquire but an orientation to embrace, an orientation toward life and God. In short, your supplication will feel like obligation until there’s adoration of His salvation.
What have your prayers felt like of late? What does that reveal about what you believe about the gospel? Perhaps, at least for a while, until you can come to times of intercession with a real sense of what He has done for you in Christ, you might begin your prayers with a time of reflection and thanksgiving for the gospel. It’s the only way out of the rut.