Running On Empty?
Prayerlessness is not an option
“Why pray when you can worry?” read a sign outside a church in England. Why indeed? Few people in our modern globalised world think much of prayer. They may well be too busy trying to pull themselves up by their own metaphorical boot-straps. But Christians should know better.
We are, after all, the most privileged people on the earth. If you had a direct line to the US President who promised to listen to your every call, how often would you call him? We Christians have Someone infinitely greater available to us: through Christ, we have access to the King of the entire universe! Yet this privilege we call prayer is also probably the most misused and/or underused tool in the Christian’s kitbag.
How could it be that such a gift could be so misplaced and abused? Is it not because prayer fundamentally challenges our self-centredness and sufficiency? Bill Hybels in his book on prayer begins thus: “Prayer is an unnatural activity,” ¹ going on to argue that we are more likely to try to work things out for ourselves and be self-reliant than threaten our autonomy and pride by turning to God for help. But we were made for God and cannot exist without Him, any more than a puppet on strings can rise of its own volition.
Theoretically, most Christians have no quarrel with the importance of prayer. But in practice, it is startling how little we pray, whether privately or corporately. We all admire the great giants of faith who were always men and women of prayer – think of George Müller, who prayed hours each day for the needs of the orphanage he ran, and then saw God miraculously provide. Or Charles Simeon whose day started at 4 am with four hours of prayer. Or John Wesley whose two daily hours in prayer could well have been learnt from watching his mother Susanna, who busy as she was with looking after John, Charles and their seven other surviving siblings, would cover her head with an apron and sit praying on her rocking chair for each of them. Or closer to home, the likes of John Sung who would compile prayer requests passed to him and spend hours in prayer for them.
Turning to the Scriptures, we have the apostle Paul, whose habit of praying constantly for those in the churches he planted, visited and led are attested to in his letters (Rom 1:9-10, 1 Cor 1:4; Phil 1:3-4; 1 Thess 1:2, etc), not to mention the great saints of holy writ like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Nehemiah and Daniel who equally impressed with their passionate intercession and faithful prayers.
On the other hand, many Christians falsely divide the Church into ‘the holy ones who can pray lots’ and ‘us ordinary people who don’t’. They struggle with the guilt of not praying regularly, or are resigned to occasional bursts of enthusiasm for praying more, before the overwhelming cares and concerns of their busy lives lull them back to being mediocre and lukewarm. Little wonder that so many Christians in our churches live weak, anaemic, compromising lives instead of going from one degree of glory to another, as Paul suggests we should in 2 Corinthians 3:18.
BACK TO BASICS
Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher once said he’d rather train one man to pray than ten men to preach. If we are to move forward in our Christian journeys, we would do well to pay attention to the vital place and priority that prayer should have above all other acts of Christian service. What is it about prayer that we need to re-learn and re-claim? Here are three fundamental qualities of prayer that highlight and underlie its vital place in the Christian life:
1. PRAYER IS COMMUNICATION. It is the place where God and man meet in Christ, and so the vitality of our relationship with God depends on the strength of that communicative link with God. Prayer is about dynamic relationships, not mere religious ritual, as two parties – one divine and one human - interact in faith, hope and love. E. M. Bounds, who wrote eight classic volumes of prayer, defined prayer as “the contact of a living soul with God. In prayer, God stoops to kiss man, to bless man and to aid in everything that God can devise or man can need.” And so prayer is one great means God has provided for us to develop our relationship with Him.
Think of marriage. If I only spoke to my wife once a week or when I needed to, as opposed to daily whenever I have the opportunity too, I can guarantee that the quality of my relationship would be much less than it is. And so the various forms that prayers can take - petition, thanksgiving, praise, adoration, confession, intercession and listening prayer - all make for a great connection with the heart and will of God, bringing us closer and deeper in relationship with Him than is possible without.
2. PRAYER ENABLES THE WORK OF THE KINGDOM TO HAPPEN. Jesus taught that He, the Son of God, only did what He saw His Father doing (Jn 5:19, 20). Jesus did not have any agenda of His own, but constantly surrendered to the plans and desires of His Father (Luke 22:42). Prayer is the place of seeking God’s mind on our circumstances, in order to do what He says. The works we do must therefore have their roots in the prayers we pray.
It is fascinating that in Luke 11:1, the disciples came to Jesus to ask Him to teach them, not how to preach (though they had never heard a preacher like Him), nor how to do miracles (though they had seen His power consistently at work), but how to pray. Jesus’ prayer life seems to have spoken more to them than any other aspect of His ministry.
And Jesus is our model when it comes to prayer. We pray because Jesus prayed – He constantly taught us to ask of God as we had need (Jn 14:13-14, Jn 16:24, etc). It was a regular and constant feature of Jesus’ life and we have numerous examples in the Gospels (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, 6:12, etc). It meant that He had an uninterrupted relationship with His Father. He assumed that we would do the same – in Matthew 6:7, He said “When you pray,” not ‘if’. He spoke of the importance of persistent faith-filled prayers in Matthew 7:7-11. Furthermore, when Christ ascended into heaven, He became the intercessor par excellence for us, and indeed that is what He is doing now at the Father’s right hand (Rom 8:34). As John Ortberg points out, His teaching ministry lasted three years, but His intercession ministry has been going on for more than two thousand.
Jesus would have viewed prayer as a base ingredient of doing the works of the Kingdom. It enables us not only to flourish in our relationship with Him but issues out of it, so that we are able to ask for, receive and show forth what God desires of us (Jn 15:7-8).
3. PRAYER IS PARTNERSHIP WITH GOD. The Scriptures make it clear that we have a divine calling from the creation of the world to be stewards and co-rulers of creation with God (Gen 1:28). In the new creation accomplished for us by the passion of Christ, we are called to be fellow-workers with God in His mission (1 Cor 3:9). Prayer is the means by which we are able to partner with God to bring about His redemptive purposes and plans in our world.
When we pray we should neither go to extreme of thinking that God will do what He wants regardless of us, a kind of fatalistic ‘what will be will be’, or that we must make it all happen, as illustrated by the unbiblical axiom ‘God only helps those who help themselves’. Instead, as Philip Yancey wrote, we must understand prayer as “a subtle interplay of human and divine that accomplishes God’s work on earth. God asks me to make myself known to Him in prayer and then works my prayers into a master plan for my life – a plan which I can only faintly grasp.”
Some people erroneously think of prayer as a way to arm-twist God into conceding to our plans and wishes. It is, in the end, not about us, but accomplishing His will. It is when we have that kind of grand vision that raises prayer beyond the ‘to do’ list we have for Him, to seek His plans for us, that our prayers will ultimately transform us to fit into His will. When we see prayer as partnership with God, we will finally see its importance and priority in our lives.
Corrie Ten Boom famously asked, “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” Prayer brings God to the forefront of our lives. We need to be careful that our prayers do not become mere after-words to our agendas and plans, customary requests where God is sought to rubber-stamp our work with His blessing. Rather, it is the place where He reveals His will and we submit to shape our lives round it. Jesus made time to pray so that He would always please the Father, fully trusting that His prayers were always heard (Jn 11:41-42). And He expects no less from us.
So we need to reform our view of prayer: it is not the work of a chosen few, but the responsibility and privilege of each and every follower of Christ. If we are to walk in the footsteps of the Spirit, then prayer is no optional extra. It is to be as natural and necessary to us as breathing. To neglect it is to risk the very asphyxiation of our souls.
Revd Manik Corea is the Global Executive of NAMS, a disciple-making, church-planting society working in 15 countries on five continents. After 13 years on the mission field in Thailand, he and his family returned to Singapore in 2021 to establish a base for NAMS for their work in the region. In his spare time, he enjoys the fortunes of Arsenal football club with his son Josiah.
¹ Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray, Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.