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Prayer: The Struggle to Know God

March 30, 2012

An article I wrote in a larger series of spiritual discipline articles for the church I worked at last year.  Hope you enjoy.

Prayer: The Struggle to Know God

I’ve always wondered why praying is so difficult.  We hear all the time from well-meaning preachers that prayer is just “talking to God,” and we feel as if this seemingly very important act could be accomplished with ease—after all it is just talking to God, right?! Then we try it.  Five minutes later, we are staring at the wall across from us, wondering when dinner is going to be ready.  We know that it should be different, but once again our knowledge of what should be and our experience of what actually is are two different things.

The Difficulties

There is no way for me to explain with certainty why prayer is so challenging at times.  I have some ideas though.  But before I begin there, let me just say that the reality that prayer is difficult is not a new thing.  All the way back to the gospels, we have the disciples asking Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).   For them to ask this question can only mean that prayer has challenges and needs some instruction.  This implies difficulty.

Throughout Christian history, various writers have commented on the difficulty of praying—and the spiritual life in general.  For instance, Henri Nouwen writes this about the spiritual life:  “Jesus tells us to set our hearts on the kingdom.  Setting our hearts on something involves not only serious aspiration but also strong determination.  A spiritual life requires human effort.”[1] The apostle Paul urges Christians in various letters, to “continue steadfastly in prayer,” (Romans 12:12).  In fact, at least three times, Paul encourages believers to be “devoted to prayer” (Romans 12:12, I Corinthians 7:5, Colossians 4:2).  To be devoted to something is a sure sign that it will not always be easy.  When we devote ourselves to another person in marriage, we do so knowing that at times it will be hard.

My main reason for writing this is to emphasize that it’s okay that prayer is not easy.  If you’ve ever struggled with prayer and being “devoted” to it, you are not alone.  The disciples of Jesus experienced its difficulty, and people throughout history have struggled to be faithful.  In saying this though, we must still wrestle with our own issues with prayer.  While prayer is sometimes difficult by its very nature, if we’re honest with ourselves, we will admit that often, we do not consider prayer and the One we are praying to be very important.

“Fast-Food” Culture

While it would be impossible to write on all the difficulties that surround prayer in this short article, I would like to focus on one main issue.
With the advent of the technological revolution, we (at least most of us in the Western world), have access to so much so quickly.  I think the rise of “fast-food” gives the perfect picture of how we, not only approach food, but life.  If we are hungry, we go get a burger.  No lines.  No cooking and preparation.  No struggle.  If we want to find information, we get on the Internet.  No libraries.  No research.  Little reading.  If we want entertainment, we turn on the T.V. and watch our favorite television show (or ten television shows!).  With the creation of the “smart-phone” we now don’t even have to wait until we get home to get on the Internet.  We can access it anytime, and anywhere.

The fact remains, there is very little in life that we have to wait patiently for.  We want—and often get—quick results.  In fact, we pride ourselves on this.  Western culture is known for its efficiency; it’s productivity.  So why should our relationship with God be any different we ask.  Shouldn’t prayer work the same way?  Shouldn’t we be able to get “quick” result when we pray—whether that be a quick answer, or a quick feeling of his presence?  And so, after five minutes, when we don’t feel anything, we assume it doesn’t work and move on.

This is not meant as a condemnation.  Please hear my heart in this: I have often approached God and prayer in the same way.  I only say all this because I believe it to be an accurate diagnosis of the modern spiritual life—we are preoccupied with the immediate and the earthly.  How does God respond to this?  Not as we think.  He yearns to overcome our distance:

“Today the heart of God is an open wound of love.  He aches over our distance and preoccupation.  He mourns that we do not draw near to Him. He weeps over our possession with muchness and manyness.  He longs for our presence.”[2]

This is God’s heart for us and God will meet us where we are at, but He will not cheapen prayer because we think it should get immediate results.  This would not help us; it would destroy us.  Anything that is costly and precious, requires struggle and devotion.  Prayer is difficult because it is the single most important part of our existence.  Prayer is our struggle—and overcoming our struggle—to know God.
On these pages there will be a great number of ways to pray—you will find that once your heart is devoted to praying, it is possible for all of life to be lived in prayer.  But, now may be the time to simply begin.  And perhaps this prayer, said with honesty and devotion is the way to begin:

“Dear Jesus, how desperately I need to learn to pray.  And yet, when I’m honest, I know that I often do not even want to pray.
I am distracted!
I am stubborn!
I am self-centered!
In Your mercy, Jesus, bring my ‘want-er’ more in line with my ‘need-er’ so that I can come to want what I need.
In your name, and for Your sake, I pray.  –Amen.”[3]

[1] As cited in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups eds. Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 80.
[2] Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 1.
[3] This prayer is taken from Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p. 15.  In fact, all of the different types of prayer will come from this phenomenal work.  This is a must read for any and all who want to move forward in a life of prayer.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 30, 2012 2:29

    I love that you mentioned that we expect everything in the world to be fast, so we expect prayer to be fast. I have never really thought of that.

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