Finding the Need to Pray
It was one of the last seminary classes I took. I wish it had been the first.
The class was called, “Prayer in Scripture and in the Christian Life.” The first part of that course title reminds us that the Bible has a lot to say about prayer. (The word appears more than 300 times in the ESV.) But the second part of the title reminds us that prayer is an important discipline of the Christian life. We can study all that the Bible says about prayer, but we must apply that teaching to our lives. And that proves to be much more difficult.
Maybe that’s why the class began with the question, “Why don’t Christians pray more?” We know the usual excuses: “I’m too busy,” or, “I get distracted.” But here’s what our professor said was the real reason we don’t pray:
We don’t feel the need. We don’t forget to sleep or eat because we eventually feel the need for them. Our bodies do not remind us to pray. If we realized how desperately we need God’s help, we would pray more.
Here are three ways we can not only fuel our prayer lives but also become more fruitful in prayer.
First, we need to get needy. We need to get uncomfortable, become holy discontent. In prosperous cultures like ours, we just don’t feel needy enough. We feel self-sufficient. We have things under control. Sure, there are things we still need (or want), but we see a way to go get it ourselves. We don’t need God. We’ve got it covered.
When I feel overwhelmed, I find it much easier to pray. My professor pointed this out, too: “When we really get in a bind, then we pray,” he said. The problem is that feeling of being overwhelmed can quickly fade and I might feel better by the morning. And then the impulse to pray fades as well.
So there’s a sense in which we ought to always feel needy, overwhelmed, in over our heads. So much so that we find a stronger impulse to pray. It is easy to admit that we are dependent on God. We can even say, “Amen,” to Jesus’s statement in John 15:5, “without me you can do nothing.” But do our prayer lives indicate that we really believe this?
What can we do? We can get needy. Jesus advised, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy” (Lk 12:33).
Of course, Jesus was not telling any of his disciples to be careless with their resources. But by getting needy they would find themselves trusting in God rather than their bank accounts. The goal is not to value poverty but rather to value the true riches, what Jesus calls “a treasure in the heavens that does not fail” (Lk 12:33). So in addition to getting needy, we need to get greedy. We need to set our heart on the treasure of heaven (Lk 12:34). Because these are the treasures we cannot acquire without Christ.
The unbeliever doesn’t seem like he needs Jesus. He does plenty of things without him. The unbeliever’s problem is not that he is incapable of doing anything apart from Christ, but that he does not want what Christ offers to give him. In the same way, what Jesus says in John 15:5 is that without him we cannot produce fruit, but perhaps we don’t want this fruit that Christ wants to give us. We are more interested in producing some extra income or having a better relationship with our spouse or being recognized for some achievement. What God says we need and wants to give us, we don’t ever ask for because we’ve got plenty of other things we believe are more important than what God is offering to give us.
So we need to get greedy, greedy for the true riches, the treasure of heaven, the fruit that Christ wants to produce through us.
This is what Jesus commands us to do when he says, “Do not be anxious about your life. Instead, seek [God’s] kingdom” (Lk 12:22, 31). We get greedy for the true riches when we get our priorities in order.
When prayer doesn’t seem to work, when we pray and don’t get what we are asking for, it is probably because we are praying amiss. We don’t have (what God says we need and wants to give) simply because we do not ask for it (Jas 4:2). And what we do ask for (what we think we need) we do not receive, because we ask for things that we can spend on our own passions. We are backward in our desires. We give up on prayer.
Prayer is how we can get ordered. By starting out our day praying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done” we are putting everything in proper order. We are asking God to give us what we truly need: fruitfulness in his kingdom. And Jesus promises that is the Father’s “good pleasure to give [us] the kingdom” (Lk 12:32) and to ensure that we also have daily bread. Our physical necessities will be taken care of.