Taking up the hard work of prayer (1)
Orare est laborare.
- Benedict of Nursia
It seems to me undeniable, from even a cursory reading of Scripture, that prayer should be a primary practice on the part of those who have entered the divine economy.
Prayer is a kind of lubricant of the spiritual gears that keep our relationship with God going and growing. All the places where we “mesh” with the Lord and His purpose – our daily lives, our work and witness, our worship, all our relationships, roles, and responsibilities – are all to be immersed in, suffused with, contained within, and made maximally functional by prayer.
As G. Campbell Morgan put it, “In the interaction of life and prayer will be found the secret of power, and the realization of fellowship with God will never be more than a theory save as prayer becomes a practice.”
Why, then, is there so little real prayer in the lives of most believers?
Your not even disputing that statement indicates that you acknowledge the truth of it. Today’s Christians are not a people one would describe as devoted to prayer, as practicing prayer throughout the daily course of their lives, living within an envelope of continuous communication with and ready praise and thanks to God.
A paucity of prayer has infected the contemporary Church, at least in this country, and before we shall ever be able to know the “secret of power” which prayer holds for bringing the Kingdom of God to greater manifestation in our lives, we shall have to address this problem, each of us in our own daily walk with the Lord.
What are the reasons for the paucity of prayer which hobbles the contemporary Church?
The answer, I believe, is twofold. First, prayer is hard work – hard spiritual work. As Benedict observed, to pray is to labor, and hard spiritual work is not the strong suit of American evangelical Christians. Not by a long shot.
The second reason is that we do not fully understand prayer, which can be obvious to anyone who has ever sat through a prayer meeting listening to the halting, self-interested, small-minded prayers of well-meaning but ill-equipped believers.
We’ll deal with the first reason here – why prayer is such hard work – and the second in follow-up installments of this column.
Why, then, is prayer such hard work?
Three reasons: First, we are not naturally inclined to pray. Today’s Christians do not have easy converse with the unseen realm. We are creatures of the here and now, and we tend to engage primarily in things we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. We are the products of our secular age, and, while we certainly acknowledge the existence of an unseen realm, we believe in God and Christ, and we understand Jesus to be exalted now at the Father’s right hand – even though we confess all this, we do not readily interact with it. Most of our prayers are offered in structured settings – our daily devotions, before meals, during worship, and so forth. The main parts of our lives are compartmentalized into activities which do not appear to lend themselves to the work of prayer. We regard Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” as a kind of spiritual hyperbole, rather than a goal to pursue.
As Francis Schaeffer once remarked, we have allowed the spirit of the naturalism of our unbelieving age to creep into our thinking and doing, without recognizing that this is the case. So, like everything else in our highly compartmentalized lives, we assign our prayers to certain niches and settings. During the large bulk of our waking moments, when we are conducting our daily lives, we are not inclined to pray, but are, rather, distracted from prayer by all we have to do.
And even during those times when we know we’re supposed to be taking prayer seriously, we’re too often like the disciples in the garden, our thoughts drifting and us nodding off into semi-consciousness, when we should be working hard at prayer (Mk. 14.37-40).
The second reason prayer is such hard work is that we are slow to learn spiritual things. This follows from the first reason. We are too much imbued with a secular and pragmatic view of life to assign to our spiritual lives the priority they require. We are like those disciples on the road to Emmaus whose hearts had become so accustomed to seeing the world through one particular set of glasses, that they were slow on the uptake when presented with the urgency and primacy of spiritual things (Lk. 24.25).
We know that spiritual things are important, of course. That’s why we read our Bibles, go to church, attend Bible study, and, yes, pray. But we tend to think about such activities as “having their place” in our lives rather than as being the pervasive context and environment in which our lives unfold. Thus, it’s hard for us to learn to pray in ways other than what we’re already familiar with within our compartmentalized experience.
Finally, Christians today find prayer to be hard work because we fail to remember that we are involved in a spiritual warfare that rages 24/7, even when we’re not paying attention (cf. Eph. 5.15-17; 6.10-20). As a result, we are easily duped into thinking of prayer as a “niche” activity, or easily discouraged from making more time for prayer because we have too many other “important” things to do.
So we find prayer to be hard work. It doesn’t come naturally to us, we’re slow to learn when it comes to spiritual things, and we’re easily distracted from praying by the business of our everyday lives
For us, orare est laborare is a nice Latin phrase to recite, but it has almost no practical significance. Our own prayers offer a microcosm of the paucity of prayer that everywhere characterizes the Body of Christ today.
Abraham Kuyper offered what should be words of warning and encouragement to us concerning the hard work of prayer: “In prayer lies not only our unity with God, but also the unity of our personal life. Movements in history, therefore, which do not spring from this deepest source are always partial and transient, and only those historical acts which arise from the lowest depths of man’s personal existence embrace the whole of life and possess the required permanence.”
We must learn to pray like this – from the depths of our innermost being to the heights of God’s heavenly throne, uniting our lives with His, our times with the divine economy, our existence and every aspect of our daily lives with His presence, purpose, and power.
Such prayer is hard work, it’s true. And we do not know how to pray like this.
But take heart: God knows. God understands. And God is ready to help you learn to take up the hard work of prayer with greater consistency, depth, power, and effects.
A conversation starter: Run this question past a few of your Christian friends: “Do you find prayer to be hard work? Why or why not?”