Prayerlessness is not fundamentally a discipline problem. At root it’s a faith problem.
What Prayer Is
Prayer is the native language of faith. John Calvin called prayer the “chief exercise of faith.”† That’s why when faith is awake and surging in us, prayer doesn’t feel like a burden or an obligation. It feels natural. It’s how faith most instinctively speaks.
Throughout the Bible, faith and prayer are inextricably linked. One of the clearest examples is Jesus’s statement in John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” “Abiding” in Jesus’s is faith—fully believing his words. Asking whatever you wish is prayer. The Bible tells us to “trust in [God] at all times” (Psalm 62:8) and to “[pray] at all times in the Spirit” (Ephesians [6:18]), “believe in God” (John 14:1) and ask of God (Luke 11:9). Prayer is the chief exercise of faith.
John 15:7 also shows us that God’s Word and faith and therefore prayer are inextricably linked. Faith is a response to God’s word: “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans [10:17]). As Tim Keller rightly says, “If God’s words are his personal, active presence [see John 1:1-3 and Isaiah [55:10]-11], then to put your trust in God’s words is to put your trust in God”†† So if our trust is in God (in God’s promises — 2 Peter 1:4), and God says if you trust me “ask whatever you wish” (John 15:7), then the natural expression of our faith in God is prayer.
The Primary Cause of Prayerlessness
First, when I say “prayerless,” I don’t mean completely prayerless. I meanrelatively prayerless. I mean that we aren’t anywhere close to “pray[ing] without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians [5:17]). We aren’t communing with God in prayer, so prayer feels like a burdensome, boring, perhaps futile exercise that we rush through in a perfunctory way or avoid. When we do pray, our prayers seem feeble and powerless, which just leads to less praying. We don’t have it in us to “pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
So what’s wrong?
If prayer is the native language of faith and we’re struggling with prayerlessness, then the first thing we need to do is look for a faith problem. There’s a faith breakdown somewhere and until we get that fixed, our problem will remain.
How do we fix this? We’ll talk about that in a minute, but first let’s talk about what not to fix first.
The Role of Discipline in Prayer
Often our first attempt at fixing our prayerlessness is to try and be “more disciplined” in prayer. We look at heroes, mentors, and peers who seem to have vibrant, powerful prayer lives and figure the solution might be doing what they do/did. If we get up earlier and use a more effective list or app or acronym we’ll fix our problem. Methods are necessary and beneficial as we’ll see, but “more discipline” is a false hope if faith is the problem.
Think of prayer as a train. Faith is the engine of prayer, God’s promises are the fuel, and discipline is the rails. Prayerlessness is almost always due to a stalled engine. For prayer to get going again, we first need to fire up our faith engine again with fuel of God’s promises.
You see, discipline doesn’t power the train of prayer. Faith powers the train as you trust God’s word. But discipline will guide the train. The rails of planning, structure, and methods are necessary. But the best time to address those is when you’ve stoked your engine, because when faith is firing you want to move forward in prayer and you are more likely to be led by the Spirit to choose the rails that are best for your prayer train.
Written by Jon Bloom
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