Love overcomes evil by doing good, and one of the marks of genuine love is that it is generous. Paul spells out what this looks like in Romans 12:9-21: Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not...
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf. (Romans 15:30)
In my Christian life, I have found that prayer is a difficult discipline. And I concur with others that praying moves through different seasons. My posture may change, my prayers may change.
But whatever season I am currently facing, my specific prayers are often marked by experiences. If I am doubting, I pray for faith. If I’m hurting, I pray for healing. If I lack wisdom, I ask God to give me discernment. If this true for you, we are together in the difficult discipline of prayer, for I am no saint when it comes to fervency of prayer. Prayer is a lagging discipline that needs constant shoring up.
The Difficulty of Prayer
Prayer is a spiritual discipline that needs cultivation. The ground needs to be turned over. Seeds need to be planted and watered. We wait like the farmer, trusting the seed will sprout and multiply its blessing.
Prayer takes effort and constant fine-tuning. We learn to pray. We learn what not to say. At one point, Paul commended Epaphras on his fervent prayer life, calling him a struggler in prayer: “Epaphras greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers” (Colossians 4:12). I like this descriptor that the apostle uses—prayer is indeed a struggle.
The great theologian and pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones once commented on the struggle of prayer. He said,
When a man is speaking to God he is at his very acme. It is the highest activity of the human soul, and therefore it is at the same time the ultimate test of a man’s true spiritual condition. There is nothing that tells the truth about us as Christian people so much as our prayer life.¹
Paul, likewise, shared his personal struggle. He said, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). Paul’s intense passion for lost people is evident here, and the struggle to pray evangelistically is clearly identified by his words.
Three Reasons Prayer Is Difficult
I believe there are at least three main culprits that inhibit true fervency in prayer.
1. Our flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).
We have difficulty suppressing physical tiredness and challenges. Perhaps there are days when our mind grows tired. Or we’re physically exhausted from work, from our children, and possibly from weakness due to an illness.
I find that physical weakness is often connected to spiritual weakness (though not always connected). For when the body is weak, our minds can think wrong thoughts about God, and our hearts can begin to believe these thoughts. Prayer time can become ineffective because our minds are distracted and wander to different themes.
I’ve caught myself falling asleep like the disciples. In these moments of lapse, I awake and find myself embarrassed or troubled in spirit that I did not labor in prayer. So I pray, “Lord strengthen my body and mind to pray.” Remember that even simple prayers can be launching pads for effective, fervent prayers to the Lord.
2. Our faith is weary (Mark 9:24).
We sometimes encounter seasons where faith is diminished. Seasons of pain and trials can be factors in a diminished faith. Unanswered prayer can be difficult to understand. When God’s promises go unanswered, we wonder if he is even listening to our requests.
Believer, during seasons of unanswered prayer, remember that God hears you. He is at work. We must fight to believe and trust the Lord, even when we cannot see him at work. “God, help my unbelief” is a simple prayer to say. Sometimes, we have no ornate or theological verbiage to pray. Simple and sweet. Straightforward and honest. So we fight weariness with prayer.
Spiritual challenges in other people also keep us from praying effectively. People’s burdens can be difficult to manage alone. I’ve found that small groups, Bible study groups, and other discipleship groups are great opportunities for believers to pray together. Burden-sharing builds unity and lightens the load. Still, the burdens can be unbearable, and we need the Lord’s help. I’m thankful for Romans 8 that says the “Spirit bears witness with my spirit,” for he speaks on behalf of our inability (Romans 8:26-27).
3. Our pattern is wrong (Matthew 6:7).
Sometimes, we approach prayer with the wrong pattern. We spend more time focusing on personal needs than addressing “our Father who is in heaven.” God is to be glorified. He is to be adorned, and he is to be worshiped.
Following a pattern for prayer is helpful and keeps us from becoming distracted by a personal wish list. Patterns direct our thoughts back to God. For the disciples, prayer was a difficult discipline that needed refinement. They grasped their need to pattern their prayers, so they watched Jesus pray. The Teacher provides them (and us) a helpful pattern to be modeled and exercised. Read through The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and notice how God is exalted, sins are confessed, and needs expressed.
There are contemporary models that can serve as tools for your prayer life, like Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (ACTS). Or you can simply walk through the Lord’s Prayer by reflecting line-by-line on its main features and applying them specifically to your prayers.
How to Pray Effective Prayers
Why not start with praying Scripture as a simple way to cultivate fervency and effectiveness in prayer? While reading through my Bible, my motivation to pray earnestly grows. Maybe read one verse or passage each day, respond in prayer, and repeat as needed. Here are several starting places:
- Nehemiah 1:5-8
- John 17:9, 11, 17, 23
- Ephesians 1:16-19
- Philippians 1:9-11
- 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
Praying for needs is also effective when a person knows exactly what to pray for. Churches can manage and store prayers, develop a prayer list in their bulletins, and send prayer requests through emails. Individuals can collect prayer needs on a list, praying through it and updating it regularly. (It’s important for us to keep our lists up-to-date and to follow up with people.)
There will be seasons when prayer lacks intensity or fervency. It may be right now that you are experiencing prayer’s greatest fight. How about returning to prayer today, by the strength God supplies? He helps you, and he hears you.