More than a quarter of Christians in the UK never pray according to a poll this week. Of those who do pray: only 19% pray daily, 10% hardly ever and 13% only in times of crisis. The poll was commissioned by Tear Fund. Perhaps the figures are not so surprising given that almost half of those identifying themselves as Christian also say they never attend Church. It seems likely, however, that prayer is in danger of being squeezed to the edges of our lives. What is it that makes us liable to downgrade the importance of prayer in everyday life?
John Brown of Wamphray wrote a very full book on prayer. It is published as Godly Prayer and its Answers. He deals in a practical way with the nature of prayer, its difficulties and how we are to seek for answers to prayer. In stressing that it is a sin to neglect prayer he gives a full forty biblical reasons as to which this is the case. He even demonstrates that those who are unregenerate are obliged to pray. He makes it unavoidably clear that someone cannot claim to be a Christian if they never pray.
1. If We Are God’s Children We Will Pray. Their adoption and being brought into God’s family as His near children lays this obligation on them to cry to God and to pray to Him as their Father.
2. If We Have a New Nature We Will Pray. Their new nature inclines their hearts Godward. When Saul is made a convert, he is brought to his knees and found a praying man (Acts 9:11). The new converts continued steadfastly in prayers (Acts 2:42).
3. If We Are a Holy Priesthood We Will Pray. The saints are a holy priesthood and must by office offer up spiritual sacrifice (1 Peter 2:5). Prayer is a chief part of their spiritual sacrifice, together with praises (v. 7). We read of the sacrifice of thanksgiving (Psalm 116:17) and of the sacrifice of praise (Jer. 33:11).
4. If We Are Not of the Wicked We Will Pray. It is the description of the wicked that they do not call on God (Psalm 5:2, 4; 14:24, 10; 79:6; Jeremiah 10:25; Romans 3:9). And on the other hand, it is the description of God’s children that they call on God (1 Corinthians 1:2). David says, “I am in prayer” (Psalm 109:4), as if he had been wholly devoted to and taken up with that work and duty, and nothing else.
5. If We Are God’s Servants We Will Pray. Their relation to God as His servants carries this with it (see Psalm 116:16, 17).
But if all of this is the case, why do Christians need so many prompts and reasons to urge them to pray? We want to think of the hindrances to prayer as outside of us but the truth is they are mostly within us.
1. Cherished Sin
When any sin is yielded to and not resisted, the heart is made more unfit for any Christian work. We are not in the right frame for approaching God in a holy and humble way. He is a holy God and will be sanctified by all that draw near Him. We may keep up the form of the duty, but it is superficially performed without the delight the soul had previously. It becomes a cumbersome burden readily laid aside [see Psalm 66:18 and Psalm 32:3].
2. Paralysing Guilt
When the conscience is awakened after committing some sin and its dreadful guilt is presented to us the soul afraid to draw near to God. Guilt stares it in the face, and it is driven back and dare not approach the holy and righteous God. Satan can say it is in vain to seek the Lord, for He has no respect for the sacrifice of fools. He will not hear a sinner.
Thus there can be no hearty and cheerful drawing near to God, as long as guilt is thus charged and the blood of Christ not applied by faith to wash away that iniquity. The soul trembles to think of approaching God, lest it be consumed. The Lord must open the door of grace and show the freedom of the covenant and lead the soul to the fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.
3. Sense of Unworthiness
There may be a deep sense of unworthiness and inward abominableness of heart by nature. This may cause some (when not mindful of the richness of free grace in the new covenant through Jesus Christ) to be afraid. They think to themselves, “Shall or dare such a vile wretch as I am presume to open my mouth to God?” Dare such a one draw near to Him who is of purer eyes than that He can behold evil (Habakkuk 1:13)? Thus, as Peter in the like case said, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8), so they say, “We must not draw nigh to God, for we are sinful men.” Though the reasoning is bad, yet it may too much prevail with weak souls to keep them from this duty.
4. Sense of Distance From God
A deep sense of the greatness, holiness, purity, justice, and glory of God may have the same effect.
5. Indulging Neglect
When they on one occasion or other give way to the neglect of this duty, their praying spirit wears off. Their neglect continues. More difficulties stand up in the way. Ultimately their neglect turns to a listlessness and lack of delight in the duty. They have an unwillingness to set about it until the Lord sends some alarm to awaken them. When Peter and the other disciples with Christ in the garden neglected the duty at the first call of Christ when He bid them watch and pray, they became even more unfit after further calls.
6. Superficial Formality
When Christians do not take care to watch over their heart in prayer and to guard against formality, all seriousness wears away. If it is only done superficially, it soon becomes an unnecessary task. Satan can quickly make it become a heavy burden if it is already an unnecessary task. When the soul judges the duty of prayer a burden, it can very easily be induced to neglect it for some time unless conscience convicts. The longer the duty is neglected, the heart is more and more unwilling and unfit for it.
7. Worldly Mindedness
Worldly mindedness is a great enemy to prayer and a praying spirit. The cares of the world choke the word so that it cannot grow up in the soul (Matthew 13). Worldly mindedness takes away watchfulness—and a praying and a watching spirit go together (Luke 21:36). When the heart is taken up with the things of this life (Luke 21:54), the soul cannot watch and pray.
8. Excessive Sorrow
Excessive grief and sorrow for any outward reason may prevent the soul from praying or at least with heartiness and cheerfulness. This is one reason why the disciples could not pray in the garden, despite the great urgency of the situation (Matthew 26:43; Luke 22:45). Their eyes were heavy, and they were sleeping for sorrow.
9. Neglecting Prompts
The Spirit is provoked to withdraw when we do not respond to His promptings to pray. When He withdraws, deadness follows. Either the duty is laid aside or it becomes an unbearable burden. The apostle joins these two together: “Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks…. Quench not the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:17–19). If we want to be kept in a praying spirit, we must be careful not to quench the Spirit.
When someone has been praying some considerable time for some special mercy or other and finds no answer (or answer that satisfies them) corruption may boil up in the heart. Satan may suggest that it is useless to be praying in this way. The soul may listen to this and out of a discontented, displeased attitude, resolve to abandon prayer (Isaiah 43:12).
11. False Notions
Errors concerning prayer may have been imbibed e.g. that we are not obliged to pray except when we are conscious of the Spirit’s moving us and setting us going. We may think we are therefore excused from this duty. The Lord may be provoked to let such live many months if not years without the free graces they desire for such a duty. There may then be a long neglect of this duty followed by an inward aversion. If at any time they are moved to the duty, He may allow their own spirit instead of His to set them going. This will never beget a spiritual delight in the duty.
12. Spiritual Laziness
A spirit of laziness may seize a person and they may give way to it and not stir themselves up to call on the Lord and take hold of Him (Isaiah 64:7). They become daily more and more unfit for the duty and more unwilling to do it. Those on whom this spiritual sloth seizes find it a grief and a weariness to do that which otherwise was a most easy thing (Proverbs 26:15).
People may depend more on their gift in prayer than Jesus for fresh influences and supply of grace. The Lord in His righteousness may withdraw the ordinary influences of His Spirit and leave them to wrestle with the duty alone. Not finding the help they once experienced, they see that they cannot pray as formerly. This may cause inward grief (not due to the original cause of the withdrawing) and create dislike for the duty of prayer. Thus, corruption working in the soul and Satan using the situation to his advantage it may bit by bit be laid aside. Inward discontentment and pride may make them reluctant to pray because they see they cannot engage in it as before. They are now ashamed to pray, especially before others.
While this may seem all rather negative, we must recognise that prayer can be a struggle at times. We need to identify the things that make it difficult in order to deal with them. Prayerlessness can seriously damage your spiritual health. Brown’s book is overwhelmingly positive in bringing out many encouragements to pray. He shows what an encouraging thing it is to pray in Christ’s name and how God is glorified in Christ in answering our prayers. We “ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1).