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How to Pray When You Don’t Want to Pray

how to pray when

Our Summit staff team is currently reading through Paul Miller’s excellent book A Praying LifeWhat I love about A Praying Life is how much it stokes a passion for prayer and helps us know how to pray when we don’t know how or don’t want to. I always love learning about other people’s “best practices,” but when it comes to prayer, I most often find myself in need of re-inspiration. And Miller does that well.

He also tackles the two biggest problems people have with prayer head on. First, we aren’t convinced it actually works. Sometimes we pray for something, and the opposite happens. Sometimes we forget to pray for something, and it does happen. Sometimes we pray for something, and it happens…but we wonder if it would have happened anyway. It’s refreshing to hear someone admit what many of us have thought.

The other big problem we have is that we don’t really know how to construct a meaningful prayer time. You can probably relate:

The most common frustration is the activity of praying itself. We last for about 15 seconds, and then out of nowhere the day’s to-do list pops up and our minds are off on a tangent… Instead of praying, we are doing a confused mix of wandering and worrying.

If someone wrote a story of my prayer life, it would probably be titled A Confused Mix of Wandering and Worrying.

Fortunately, Miller also provides several helpful ways out of our prayer haze for how to pray when we don’t want to.

The biggest takeaways for how to pray when you don’t want to pray:

How to Pray When… Tip #1. A lack of prayer isn’t a prayer problem; it’s an idolatry problem.

Prayerlessness is the inevitable result of pride or a lack of faith—usually both. You fail to pray, instinctively, either because you are too proud to realize you need God or too unbelieving to grasp his willingness to help. As Miller puts it,

If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money and talent are all you need in life. You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy. But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how busy, no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.

Most approaches to correct prayerlessness skip over this heart issue. They’re law-based and end up sounding something like, “You only pray six minutes a week. And you call yourself a Christian. Stop being so terrible, and do better.” This works for a little while—or maybe a long while, if you have a disciplined temperament. But it’s bound to fail, because it’s trying to fix an idolatry problem with a law-based solution. The law can’t overcome our idolatrous hearts; only the gospel can.

The answer is not simply to “get more disciplined” or to start prayer journaling (both of which may be useful). Prayer is, in essence, a natural result of desperation and faith. When the gospel has cultivated humility and faith in us, we will obey Paul’s command to “pray continuously,” not because we’re told to, but because we are so in touch with our poverty of spirit that we can’t help asking for help.

How to Pray When… Tip #2. Pray like a kid. Which is to say, stop self-analyzing and just talk with your Dad.

Jesus tells us to pray like children. The stories he commends about adults praying actually make them sound like children. Think about the parable of the friend who comes banging on your door at midnight and won’t leave you alone. Or the persistent widow, who keeps badgering the unjust judge until he grants her request (just to get her off his back). The heroes in these prayer stories are people who just come and talk and ask for whatever they need.

Just like our kids.

My kids don’t stop to analyze their motives before they ask me for something. They don’t ask, “Now why might I want this bicycle?” No, they just tell me what they need. Granted, the things they “need” are often ridiculous, sometimes dangerous. But they don’t mind looking silly by asking for the wrong thing. And they certainly don’t get held up by me telling them “no.” To my kids, “no” is just an annoying speed bump on the way to wearing me down with their requests.

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J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.