I've been perplexed for some time about a problem that has persisted in the church for years - and it concerns me deeply. The problem is, why is it so hard for Christians to pray?
Scripture makes it clear that the answer to everything in our lives is prayer mixed with faith. The apostle Paul writes, "Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God" (Philippians 4:6). Paul is telling us, "Seek the Lord about every area of your life. And thank him ahead of time for hearing you!"
Paul's emphasis is clear: Always pray first! We aren't to pray as a last resort - going to our friends first, then to a pastor or counselor, and finally ending up on our knees. No - Jesus tells us, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). We're to go to the Lord first - before anyone!
It's heartrending to read the letters sent to our ministry from multitudes of broken Christians. Families are breaking up, spouses are divorcing, people who walked faithfully with Christ for years are living in fear and defeat. Each of these people has been overcome by something - sin, depression, worldliness, covetousness. And year after year, their problems only seem to get worse.
Yet, what shocks me most about their letters is that very few of these Christians ever mention prayer. They turn to tapes, books, counselors, call- in shows, therapies of all kinds - but rarely ever to prayer. They go through each day worrying, fretting, living with a cloud hanging over their heads, because they don't have an answer to their problems.
Why is it so hard for Christians, in times of crisis, to seek God for their desperate needs? After all, the Bible stands as one long testimony that God hears the cries of his children and answers them with tender love:
- "The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry" (Psalm 34:15).
- "The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles" (verse 17).
- "This is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him" (1 John 5:14-15).
- "...The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16).
- "All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" (Matthew 21:22).
- "...the prayer of the upright is his delight" (Proverbs 15:8).
- "The Lord...heareth the prayer of the righteous" (verse 29).
- "He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer" (Psalm 102:17).
Listen to David's great boast: "In the day when I cried thou answeredst me, and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul" (138:3). David said, "I've proven you, God! In all my trials, I turned to no one else. I sought only you - and you heard me, answered me, and gave me strength for the battle I was facing!" "Thou calledst in trouble, and I delivered thee; I answered thee..." (81:7).
These promises and testimonies are overwhelming evidence of God's care. And they're so varied, profound and numerous, I don't understand how any Christian could miss them!
Yet when it comes to prayer, the Bible gives us more than promises. It also gives us warnings about the danger of neglecting prayer: "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation..." (Hebrews 2:3). The Greek word for "neglect" here means "of little concern; to take lightly."
The context of this verse is a discussion of things related to our salvation - and prayer is obviously one of these. God is asking, "How do you expect to escape ruin and devastation in the dark times coming, if you haven't learned to commune with me in prayer? How will you know and recognize my voice in that day, if you haven't learned to hear it in your secret closet?"
I believe God is deeply wounded by the neglect of prayer among his people today. Jeremiah writes: "Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me days without number" (Jeremiah 2:32).
Here is my big question - the one thing I simply cannot understand: How can God's own people - who are under constant attack from hell, facing trouble and temptations on all sides - go week after week without ever seeking him? And how can they claim to love him and believe in his promises, yet never draw near to his heart?
Hebrews 10 contains an incredible promise. It says God's door is always open to us, giving us total access to the father:
"Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water" (Hebrews 10:19-22).
A few verses later, we're warned the day of the Lord is fast approaching: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (verse 25). God is saying, "Even now, as the time of Christ's return draws closer, you must seek my face. It's time to go into your secret closet and get to know me!"
I believe we're already seeing the signs that prove we're close to a meltdown of our financial system: Violence and immorality are on the rise. Our society is pleasure mad. False prophets - "angels of light" - have already deceived many with their doctrines of demons. And, at any time, we can expect to see the hour of tribulation, which will cause men's hearts to fail with fear. Yet, before all this happens, the writer of Hebrews says:
"Don't let the truth slip away from you! Stay awake and alert. You have an open door into God's holy presence - so, go into him with full assurance of faith, making your petitions known. Christ's blood has already made the way for you - and nothing stands between you and the father. You have every right to enter into the holy of holies, to receive all the help you need!"
When we take lightly Jesus' sacrifice - which he gave so we could have access to the father for all our needs - we "do despite" to the grace of God, provoking his anger!
Yet, even with all these powerful warnings about the dangers of neglecting prayer, Christians still find it hard to pray. Why? I believe there are four reasons for this:
When I use the word "lukewarm" to describe a person's love for Jesus, I don't mean he's cold toward the Lord. Rather, I mean his love is "inexpensive" - not costly. Let me give you an example:
When Jesus addresses the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2, he first commends them for all they've done. He acknowledges they've labored hard in the faith - hating sin and compromise, refusing to accept false doctrines, never fainting or giving up when persecuted, always taking a stand for the gospel.
But, Christ says, he holds one thing against them: They've forsaken their fervent, expensive love for him! "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love" (Revelation 2:4).
Somehow amid all their good works, they left behind their loving, disciplined walk with Jesus. And now he tells them, "You've left your first love. You've forsaken the costly discipline of coming into my presence, to commune with me!"
Please note: Jesus is speaking here of believers who started out with a burning love for him. He isn't addressing dead, cold, nominal Christians, who never loved him in the first place. Rather, he's saying, "It's possible for someone who once had a heart of love for me to let his zeal become lukewarm. The devoted servant who once ran daily to seek me in his secret closet now seldom prays at all!"
Think about how insulting this must be to Christ, who is our bridegroom. What kind of marriage can there be when a husband and wife have no private times of intimacy? And that's just what Jesus is talking about here. He wants moments with you all to himself, to enjoy intimacy!
You may say you love him - but if you never show up to be with him, you prove you don't love him at all. That kind of behavior would never cut it with another lover. If you told your girlfriend you loved her, but you only saw her once a week - just long enough to say, "Hi, honey, I love you, now goodbye!" - she wouldn't put up with it. Why should Jesus, who gave his all - his very life - for you?
It doesn't matter how loudly you praise the Lord in church, how much you say you love him, how many tears you shed. You can give generously, love others, hate sin, rebuke wrongdoers - but if your heart isn't being continually drawn to Christ's presence, you simply don't love him. You're taking prayer lightly, neglecting it - and, according to Jesus' own words, that's proof you've lost your love for him.
All our works are in vain, unless we return to our bright-burning love for Jesus. We have to realize, "Loving Jesus isn't just about doing things. It involves the daily discipline of maintaining a relationship. And that will cost me something!"
A priority is the importance you place on something. And Christians who neglect prayer have perverted their priorities!
Many believers pledge they'll pray if and when they can find the time. Yet each week, seeking Christ becomes less important to them than washing the car, cleaning the house, visiting friends, eating out, going shopping, watching sports. They simply don't make time to pray.
Yet people were no different in the days of Noah and Lot. Their top priorities were eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and caring for their families. They had no time to listen to messages of God's coming judgment. And so no one was prepared when judgment fell!
Evidently, nothing has changed over the centuries. For most Americans, God remains at the bottom of the priority list. And at the top are income, security, pleasure, family. Of course, for many Americans God doesn't even make the list. But that doesn't grieve the Lord nearly as much as how little he's valued by his own children!
Today, thousands of Christians are traveling across the country just to be prayed over by some minister, prophet or evangelist. These believers want to feel God's touch and have some ecstatic experience of his presence. But even if they get what they're looking for, the experience only lasts a short time. And, ironically, the whole time they're traveling and seeking God's touch, they don't spend five minutes in prayer!
Beloved, the Lord doesn't want your leftovers - those little bits and pieces of time when you have only a moment to toss up a quick prayer request. That isn't a sacrifice of prayer. It's a lame offering - and it pollutes his altar!
The prophet Malachi writes: "If ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And if ye offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person? saith the Lord of hosts" (Malachi 1:8).
Malachi is saying, "You're bringing just any old farm animals to sacrifice in God's presence. But these are careless, thoughtless, secondhand gifts. Try giving those kinds of offerings to your governor. He'd have you thrown out of his presence!"
God expected his people to go through their flocks carefully, examining every animal, to choose the most perfect specimen among them for sacrifice to him. And likewise today, God expects the same from us. He wants our quality time - time that won't be rushed or hurried. And we're to make that time a priority!
I once met with the pastor of one of America's largest churches. This man was one of the busiest ministers I'd ever seen. He told me without apology, "I have no time to pray." Yet, what he really meant was, "I don't give any priority to prayer."
When I visited his church, I sensed no moving of God's Spirit in the congregation. In fact, it was one of the deadest churches I'd ever preached in. Yet, how could there be any life, if the pastors didn't pray?
The fact is, no Christian will set aside time to pray unless it becomes his first priority in life, above everything else - above family, career, leisure time, everything. Otherwise, his sacrifice is perverted!
Many Christians think all that's required of them is to go to church, worship, listen to the preaching, resist sin, do their very best, and all will be well for them. This is the sacrifice they bring to God - and they think he's pleased with it!
I've spent time at the bedsides of dying Christians who were faithful churchgoers for over fifty years. These people never missed a meeting. They were good, family people, and they could talk about every spiritual subject. But they had no prayer life whatsoever. They spent hours with their family, or sitting in front of a TV, or working on their hobbies - but they had no time to be alone with Christ.
This may sound harsh to you, but I believe those people went into eternity not knowing their Lord. God never drew near to them - because they never drew near to him!
I fear for every Christian who's learned to live comfortably with no daily prayer life - who's never had a growing communion with the Lord. Such people end up strangers to him. And they'll be among those whom Christ rebukes on judgment day: "Yes, you did many great works - you healed people, you performed miracles, you brought many into my kingdom. But I never knew you. Depart from me, stranger!"
How can we escape God's anger and displeasure, if we neglect his great gift of salvation? How can we face him on judgment day, when the books are opened to reveal we haven't spent any time with him? We may answer, "Lord, I realize I made very little time for you. I spent it all on myself, my family, my career. But now I'm ready to spend eternity getting to know you." Do you think he'll stand for that? No - never!
The fact is, you can easily spend a whole lifetime without prayer. In fact, I know of some very "successful" pastors and evangelists who've had to learn to minister completely without prayer. They can entertain you, tell you great stories and make you laugh. But they can't convict you, change you, or move you to seek God's face!
After a while, these men fall into deep despair. Why? They become more and more dependent on the arm of the flesh, rather than on the Lord. And their lives become full of confusion on every side. Prayerless preachers are powerless preachers!
Likewise, prayerless Christians are shallow in their faith, easy targets for false teachers, quickly led astray from the true gospel. Such Christians are always "learning" - but never maturing!
Over time, many believers get discouraged over unanswered prayers - and, finally, they simply give up. They think, "Maybe I just lack faith. All I know is, prayer doesn't work for me. And why should I pray if it doesn't work?"
The Israelites in Isaiah's time had the same attitude. Isaiah wrote: "They seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness...they ask of me...they take delight in approaching to God. Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge [notice]?..." (Isaiah 58:2-3).
These people were accusing God of child neglect! They were saying, "I love God - I do right and avoid sin. And, until recently, I've been faithful to seek him in prayer. But, you know what? He's never answered me! So, why should I continue afflicting my soul before him? He's never taken notice of my pleadings!"
Many unmarried Christian women tend to think this way. They say, "For years I've sought the Lord sincerely, asking him to bring a godly man into my life. I've prayed for over a decade now. But nothing has happened!" So they try to make a marriage happen on their own - and disaster follows.
Recently, a pastor wrote an alarming letter to me. He said: "Brother Wilkerson, this past week I shut down the church I've pastored for several years. I simply disbanded the congregation and left the pulpit. For years we prayed for revival - but it never happened. We prayed for a building - but it never came through. Over the years, we dwindled to thirty people. It just wasn't working. And now I'm leaving to find another job."
I pity this dejected man. Yet, I agree - he needs another job, because he probably wasn't called to ministry in the first place. You see, our calling isn't to see revival happen, to have a church building, or to have respectable numbers in the congregation. No - it's to minister to the Lord faithfully - and that includes our prayer life!
James writes that God doesn't answer the prayers of those who ask for things simply to satisfy themselves: "Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts" (James 4:3). In other words: "You're not asking for God's will. You're not ready to submit to whatever he wants. Rather, you're trying to dictate to him those things that will satisfy your own heart!"
Make no mistake - our God is utterly faithful. Paul writes, "...let God be true, but every man a liar..." (Romans 3:4). He's saying, in essence, "It doesn't matter if you hear a million voices crying, "Prayer doesn't work. God doesn't hear me!" Let every man be called a liar. God's word stands - and he is faithful to hear us!"
Jesus said, "...whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" (Matthew 21:22). Simply put, Christ is saying, "If you truly believe, you'll be willing to wait and expect an answer from your heavenly father. And it won't matter to you how long it takes. You'll hold on in faith, believing he'll answer!"
If God has delayed answering a particular prayer of yours, you can be sure he's testing your faith. He wants you to trust him when he appears to be silent. And he tests you, to see if you'll say, "I give up. He doesn't answer!" Ultimately, he wants your faith to come forth as pure as gold - so you'll be equipped to receive many answers, both for you and for others! I once read the story of a godly saint - a dear, older sister who'd walked closely with Jesus for many years. Her prayer life was so strong, people everywhere asked her to pray for them. One day a friend wrote to her asking for prayer, and the woman agreed.
A few weeks later, this godly woman received another letter from that same friend, saying, "Thank you for praying - I've been healed!" But the godly woman realized she'd forgotten to pray! She rejoiced that her friend had been healed - yet she wondered, "Lord, she said her faith was weak. Why did you heal her, if I forgot to pray?"
God answered her: "I healed her because you've gotten to know me! You've grown so close to me, I fulfilled the very desire you had for your friend - even without your prayer."
"Oh how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee; which thou hast wrought for them that trust in thee before the sons of men!" (Psalm 31:19). "...they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing" (34:10).
Go to your secret closet regularly, and seek him with all your heart. That's your answer to a healed marriage, to unsaved family members, to every need in your life. Your answers may not come overnight. Yet, God will do his work in his time and his way. Your part is to believe he is faithful to answer - because you're his beloved child!