Struggling through the Spiritual Exercise of Prayer
Devoted to Prayer Seminar
Objectives for this hour:
- Consider prayer as a struggle.
- See the benefits of desperation in the prayer struggle.
- Embrace discipline in the prayer struggle.
There is perhaps no more important, consistent characteristic of godliness than prayerfulness. Regardless of vocation, regardless of culture, regardless of spiritual giftedness, a man or woman who is godly, who lives according to the Bible, who follows the example of Christ, prays.
Yet prayer also is probably the most difficult struggle for any given Christian. Before I suggest why it is so great a struggle, why am I calling it a “struggle” in the first place?
The biblical reason I say prayer is a struggle is found in Colossians 4:12. Paul wrote to the Colossian church instructing them about the preeminence of Christ so that they would become complete in Christ, spiritually mature, knowing God’s will and walking in a manner of life fully pleasing to God. Near the end of his letter Paul sent greetings from a number of co-workers [in 4:10-17, final greetings being the point of the paragraph] including greetings from Epaphras–one of Colosse’s own, apparently the one who started the church in Colosse, and the one who came to Paul for help. Paul tells the Colossians that Epaphras was always struggling on your behalf in his prayers. That knocks my socks off almost every time I read it.
The word struggling is a term Paul frequently used in reference to ministry in the New Testament; it is the Greek word ἀγωνίζομαι. It means “to struggle, to fight, to battle” for something. It is to strain, to spend all you’ve got for a particular purpose, so the NASB translation is “always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers.” Prayer requires that kind of effort; it is that kind of fight; it is that kind of “wrestling” (NIV); it is a struggle.
Prayer is hard work. That’s why Paul goes on to say in verse 13,
For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hieropolis.
While it’s possible that Paul was referring to Epaphras’ past work, as in, Epaphras came to Paul and told him everything he had done, I think it’s unlikely that Paul would say, I bear him witness. The Colossians would be better witnesses of that than Paul. What Paul witnessed, then, was the labor and struggle that Epaphras exerted when he was away from the sheep, and that means that the thing Paul witnessed was prayer! Epaphras was devoted to prayer.
The theological reason I say prayer is a struggle is because everything about us fallen creates shouts PRIDE. Prayer and pride do not fit together. Prayer says I’m needy, pride says I’m not going to ask anybody for anything. Prayer says I’m weak, pride says me and my kid can beat up you and your honor roll kid. Prayer says I can’t figure it out on my own, pride says I don’t need your input. Prayer says God gets the glory, pride says I’d like some of the spotlight for myself. So our own hearts, full of self-reference and self-reliance, make prayer a struggle.
And doesn’t experience itself confirm that prayer is a struggle? We’d rather sleep than pray. We’d rather play than pray. We’d rather work than pray, even when the work is a good thing. After all, there’s a lot of work to do. I love how Piper puts it,
Both our flesh and our culture scream against spending an hour on our knees beside a desk piled with papers. It is un-American to be so impractical as to devote oneself to prayer and meditation two hours a day. (Piper, Brothers, We are not Professionals, 55)
Prayer is a struggle for many of us, as is physical exercise. In fact, exercise is a great illustration for the struggle of prayer. We know it’s good for us but we have trouble doing it. We have seasons where we’re committed and then relatives from out of town come in for the weekend and throw us off track. We like how we feel when we’re exercising, a good tired and good sore. That good feeling isn’t so easy to remember when the floor seems so cold at 5am.
We’d rather do almost anything else, even if it’s less effective, because it’s less of a struggle.
Is it not…true that by and large we are better at organizing than agonizing? Better at administrating than interceding? Better at fellowship than fasting? Better at entertainment that worship? Better at theological articulation than spiritual adoration? Better–God help us!–at preaching than at praying? (Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 17)
Prayer is exercise; it is a spiritual discipline. The act of praying itself doesn’t make a person godly (hypocrites love to pray), but the effect of disciplined prayer, especially over time, does work to make us more godly. Going out the door for a jog doesn’t lower one’s cholesterol, but jogging a few times a week over the course of a few months and you may start to see a change.
We don’t exercise in prayer because we have little to no desperation and little to no discipline.
Little to No Desperation
Our desire isn’t strong enough. We always do what we most want to do, and our prayer-wants are weaker than our wants for sleep or for ease. Even though the doctor told us that our inactivity puts us at risk, we have trouble taking his warnings seriously.
Not Desperate for Help
When do we tend to pray the most? When things are most difficult. We cry to God when a child is diagnosed with disease, when a job is lost, when the marriage is sinking, or when a parent dies. We tend to pray when we are brought to the end of ourselves, when our resources are depleted, when we see that our wisdom is insufficient. We pray when we have nowhere else to turn in tough times.
That’s good. That’s appropriate.
Pain providentially wrought
that presses us to pray, ought
in thanks not be forgot.
But shouldn’t we sense our need all the time? In reality, we are always in over our heads. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We must not only put on the armor of God, we are to do so “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (6:18). We don’t pray, either because we’re ignorant of the battle, or because we’re not engaged in the battle. Ignorance is hazardous; disengagement is disloyal.
If we believe Jesus when He tells us that, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), do we not think that we need ropes of prayer to tie our flimsy branch to the strong vine? Perhaps the reason we’re not gluing ourselves to Him in prayer is because we’re not much interested in fruit.
A pastor who feels competent in himself to produce eternal fruit–which is the only kind that matters–knows neither God nor himself. A pastor who does not know the rhythm of desperation and deliverance must have his sights set only on what man can achieve. (Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, 54)
Piper’s book is addressed to pastors, but the truth is no less the case for parents and disciplers and co-workers. We can’t save anyone. We can increase no one’s love for God. We don’t have the energy or wisdom to deal with the mess of sinful sheep. But when we go to Him for help, He loves to deliver those in great need.
Hear, O my people, and I will speak;
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
We (should) want to praise God. According to this psalm, we do that by calling on Him in the day of trouble. We depend, He delivers. We’re rescued, He’s revered! Sometimes prayer is a struggle because we’re not struggling enough.
Not Desperate for Fellowship
This may be the most scathing rebuke to our spiritual lives. Lack of prayer cannot help but reveal a lack of desire for God. It’s not only that we’re not dependent on God for His help, it’s that we’re not interested in spending time with Him.
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
Men are made in God’s image. I believe that means, among other things, that God made us with capability for relationship. The three Persons of the Trinity enjoy perfect fellowship and intimacy with one another, and God made men and women to enjoy a similar type of intimacy, with each other, and with Himself. In the Garden, Adam walked with God. That’s not how it is for us thanks to Adam’s fall, but through Christ “we have also obtained access by faith into this grace” (Romans 5:2). We can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace,” not only that “we may receive mercy and find grace in the time of need” (Hebrews 4:16), but also so that we can have fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (cf. 1 John 1:3).
Those who confess to not knowing how to pray for more than five minutes are revealing more than a lack of ability to come up with or organize a prayer list. They are confessing an aloofness toward God.
Our souls languish (that is, they lose vitality, they grow weak, they deteriorate) when we do not linger in God’s presence in prayer.
Aren’t there times you’ve been visiting with a friend when you felt like the conversation could go on all night? The time gets away from you. Don’t you think that was probably the primary reason Jesus often spent entire nights with His Father in prayer? The marrow of prayer is not simply having God answer our requests, but being still, being with Him, and knowing that He is God.
We schedule appointments or make dates (and get babysitters) to spend time with those we love. Squeezing in five minutes with God before we rush out the door–yes, is better than no minutes, but–does not honor His place nor does it satisfy our souls.
Little to No Discipline
Desire/desperation and discipline cannot be totally isolated from each other, but there is something about the exercise of prayer that requires training.
We do not drift into spiritual life; we do not drift into disciplined prayer. (Carson, 19)
Discipline is hard. If discipline was easy, everyone would have it. If it’s hard for you to get up and pray, right. Trees fall down, not up. Morning people aren’t necessarily morning prayers. Morning prayers, or those disciplined to pray at some scheduled time each day, work at it. If you’re busy and you find it hard to find time to pray, it’s not that you don’t have enough time, it’s that prayer isn’t one of your priorities. It’s not a time problem, it’s a heart problem. In reality, we are too busy not to pray.1
If physical fitness were easy, we’d all look like Arnold. There are no surprises. No pills. No easy, get skinny quick tricks. You don’t have to give up food entirely. You don’t have to do jumping jacks every waking moment. What makes the difference are daily, often little, sometimes hard choices. Eat better and less; exercise more.
We are out of spiritual shape. We generally have minimal spiritual stamina. We’re worn out by comparatively small laps around the ministry track. Our weariness is no more surprising than the person who lays around on the couch, swilling milkshakes and eating pizza all week, who wonders why he’s sucking wind after two minutes on the treadmill.
The way to increase spiritual strength and health is no surprise. There are no gimmicks, no get spiritual quick tricks. We don’t have to become monks or nuns. We don’t have to sit Indian style all day in a room of burning incense. But consistent, often subtle, sometimes hard spiritual choices make a difference.
Isn’t that the point of Colossians 4:2 and Romans 12:12?
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving. Rejoice in hope, persevering in tribulation, being devoted to prayer.
These directions imply that prayer does not happen by rolling out of bed. We must consciously set our hearts and minds to the task.
Make a Prayer Exercise Program
There isn’t any reason to get crazy out of the gate. It’s rare for a person to run a marathon without weeks of preparation, gradually increasing their millage, building up endurance in their legs and lungs.
It is okay not to pray for everyone everyday, or for two hours at one time. But if you don’t have a plan, you will carry around a nagging feeling that someone’s needs are being brought before God. Some people love to do the same exercise every day, say, running on a treadmill. That would be death to others, who prefer more of a cross-fit variety. That’s great. Besides, everyone starts at different stages. Everyone needs a plan, and the goal is to build that plan into a habit. Of course, a plan does not a pray-er make.
Procure some Prayer Exercise Equipment
Though I’ll mention more about these helps during session six, there are a number of helpful supports to prayer.
- Scripture Reading and Meditation. For sake of praying Scripture prayers. For sake of praying God’s will for people.
- Scripture Memory. For praying Scripture without your copy in front of you. For using Scripture as a way to praise.
- Prayer List.
- A Place.
Owning the right equipment does not a pray-er make either, as illustrated by dust layers on Nordic Tracks in garages across the country.
Find a Prayer Exercise Partner
Maybe you need a prayer partner, or at least someone who can help keep you on track. Prayer with someone, your spouse, a discipler, a good friend, can be motivating. But prayer must happen alone as well.
In running, no mile is a wasted mile. Don’t not start because it feels like too little to be worthwhile. Start. Start slowly. Build up your prayer legs (or, as it were, your prayer knees). If the most you’ve ever prayed before is five minutes, and even then you were watching the second hand for the last two minutes, scraping the bottom of your brain to come up with more things to pray, you probably shouldn’t go home and lock yourself in your closet for an hour. But you do need to stretch out and increase your discipline.
Disciplined, focused, intense exercise increases our metabolic rate. I say that because quick, unplanned praying throughout the day is good, but it’s probably not the same as devotion to prayer. What’s more, we won’t be equipped to process unplanned moments into prayer throughout the day without building a base in scheduled times. Yes, little decisions to take the stairs instead of the elevator may be good, as is praying while we tie our shoelaces. But good spiritual fitness requires more discipline.
The true rich fruit of spontaneity grows in the garden that is well tended by the discipline of schedule.2
Remember also that every part of a person’s life spills over onto the rest. A choice to gorge at mealtime will inevitably influence choices at exercise time. Failure to discipline our bedtime will sap our prayer time. Discipline in Bible reading and corporate worship tend to help us be more disciplined in prayer, and visa versa.
If I could switch from illustration of exercise while trying to make the same point: we need to stay long in prayer to set our hearts in God’s mold. The longer we stay in prayer, the stronger we become and the more likely we’ll stick to the shape. Concrete is formed and firmed in certain conditions over time, so our souls are fixed and established. Take away the mold of prayer and our souls are like jello. I don’t want to face the spiritual foe with a jello-heart.
Put in on your calendar if you have to. Tell others that you’ve got an appointment during that time and that you’re unavailable. If we don’t have a plan to exercise, it usually slips through our busy schedules.
I’ve said elsewhere about the Lord’s day that there is no switch to flip that will instantly redirect self-affection to Him-affection. A life devoted to self will struggle to develop a life devoted to prayer. It is unnatural to take half an hour and focus, with full and hot affections, on someone else. Everything in our flesh pulls our attention and our affections back to ourselves.
Let me offer one more illustration. During some remodeling at our house this past summer, Mo sorted a potentially explosive rat’s nest of electrical wires. She tracked down lines, removed old lines, ran new ones, in an effort to power our house safely and predictably. Electricity is a powerful force, and actually, a fairly simple one.
We are wires. We conduct the current we’re connected to. Too many of us are hardwired into the world. We’re fastened into Facebook. We’re spliced into the television. We need to cut the wire, strip the ends, and be twisted tightly into the current of God’s strength in the wire nut of prayer.
Prayer is the coupling of primary and secondary causes. It is the splicing of our limp wire to the lightening bolt of heaven. (Piper, *Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, 53)
- Pray for help to pray. Pray for Spirit-driven desperation and discipline.
- Make appointments to pray for a minimum amount of time, at a set time, every day for a week. Review your progress at the end of the week and then make appointments for the next week appropriately.
- Don’t relax. It takes hardly any time to get out of shape, but a lot to get back in. The enemy never takes a day off.