It’s shameful but true. Christians have long struggled to exercise their most astounding privilege: permission to approach the throne of grace and talk to God, communicating with the One who makes and rules the world, who creates and redeems, who loves with an everlasting love that has overcome the power of sin, death, and the Devil. Though such a privilege takes our breath away when rightly understood, it is all-too-often neglected, taken for granted, and performed as if what we profess about God isn’t true.
Our neglect is not new. On the eve of Jesus’s death, even Peter, James, and John fell asleep when he asked them to keep watch and pray (Matt. 26:36–46). If Jesus’s inner circle had a hard time praying at such a crucial moment, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that we, too, fail to pray in the way God intends.
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, fewer than half of U.S. adults pray daily—and this number has fallen precipitously in the past 15 years, from 58 percent of respondents in 2007 to 45 percent in 2021. Moreover, Crossway reports that only 2 percent of poll respondents are “very satisfied” with their prayer lives; a much larger percentage spoke of “moderate” to “low” satisfaction.
Surely this has a great deal to do with our lack of understanding about the nature of prayer. A recent survey of American adults by Barna showed that 20 percent believe God carries out his will apart from prayer; 14 percent don’t know if or how he responds to prayer.
Witnesses from Scripture
And yet the Word of God could hardly be clearer. Christ himself prayed fervently, persistently, sometimes all night long. (In the Gospel of Luke alone, see 3:21–22; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28–29, 11:1; 22:32, 44, not to mention Christ’s prayers recorded in 10:21; 22:41–42; 23:34, 46.) “The LORD is near to all who call on him,” Jesus understood, “to all who call on him in truth” (Ps. 145:18).
Christ has taught us to pray, and to do so importunately. Like the man who repeatedly begged his sleepy neighbor for bread and eventually secured some, we can have confidence that “everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:10). And like the widow who wouldn’t stop crying out for justice (Luke 18:2–8), we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
If Jesus’s inner circle had a hard time praying, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that we, too, fail to pray in the way God intends.
Jesus’s apostles reiterated this teaching, weaving it into the very fabric of the New Testament canon. “Pray without ceasing,” the apostle Paul commands (1 Thess. 5:17). James adds,
Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:16–18)
Witnesses from Church History
Church history is rife with further admonitions to pray. The hesychast tradition of the Eastern Orthodox has devoted itself to plumbing the depths of prayer without ceasing, as explained in the spiritual compendium Philokalia (1782), compiled by the brothers of Mount Athos in Greece. Roman Catholics and others have prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office, or Breviary, marking time and consecrating everyday life in devotion to the Lord.
Martin Luther taught the laity to pray like monks and priests, scheduling their lives in dependence on the Lord. Around the dinner table, he once remarked,
Ach, what a great thing the prayer of the godly is! How powerful it is before God, that a poor soul should talk with God and not be frightened in his presence, but instead know that God smiles at him in a friendly manner because of Jesus Christ. The conscience must not run away on account of its unworthiness or be overwhelmed with doubts or let itself be frightened.
Moreover, Luther once wrote his barber and parishioner, Peter Beskendorf, with counsel on prayer:
Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer. . . . It may well be that you may have some tasks which are as good or better than prayer, especially in an emergency. There is a saying ascribed to St. Jerome that everything a believer does is prayer. . . . Yet we must be careful not to break the habit of true prayer and imagine other works to be necessary which, after all, are nothing of the kind. Thus at the end we become lax and lazy, cool and listless toward prayer.
Good pastors have always known that people often make excuses for their failure to pray based on faulty understandings of the Bible and theology. Jonathan Edwards, for example, knew that some use predestination as a reason not to pray. But “God is, speaking after the manner of men, overcome by humble and fervent prayer.” Nobody changes God’s mind, or even informs him, during prayer. He “is omniscient, and with respect to his knowledge unchangeable. . . . He knows what we want, a thousand times more perfectly than we do ourselves, before we ask him.” Still, he commands us to pray, for he wants us to depend on him. And he wills from eternity to answer prayer.
This leaves us without excuse, Edwards told his flock, for our failure to pray with both fervency and frequency—in public, of course, but even more so in private. Only “hypocrites” neglect to pray when no one is looking. They “may continue for a while in the duty of prayer, yet ‘tis their manner after a while in a great measure to leave it off.”
Only ‘hypocrites’ neglect to pray when no one is looking.
Let’s avoid being hypocrites—deluding ourselves to think we’re right with God even when we don’t take advantage of the privilege of speaking with, communing with, and calling on him. Instead let us be real disciples, trusting in the Lord and taking him at his word.
Imagine what would happen if we inched our way closer to prayer without ceasing. Imagine if we cultivated the faith, godly discipline, and habit of communicating with God as if he really were with us all the time, ruling our lives and our world in the way Scripture says. Whether or not you sense it now, it’s nevertheless true—as it has always been—that God blesses such costly discipleship.
We believe, Lord. Help our unbelief, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.