It's easy when prayer malfunctions to focus on our practice of prayer.
But what if our problem runs deeper?
I'll never forget the words of John Piper at chapel during my seminary years, "You don't know what prayer is for until you know life is war." Piper's blood-earnestness cornered my half-heartedness and I wondered why I was so casual about something so monumental. My peace-time prayers reflected my belief that I lived in peace-time. Almost unknowingly, I had turned prayer into a domestic intercom, not a wartime walkie-talkie.
Piper tag-teamed with a David Wells article, "Prayer: Rebelling Against the Status Quo," which exposed and pinpointed the problem with my prayer life. It was not the practice of prayer itself. It was the condition of my heart. I had forgotten that prayer expresses a struggle. In one sense it is a posture of defiance and a pleading for deliverance defiance toward the world as we know it ("hallowed by your name") and deliverance into a world where heaven's interests play out on earth ("on earth as it is in heaven"). My peace-time prayers reflected my "resignation" to the world as I witnessed it. My casualness, Piper, and Wells helped me see, was a reflection of my conformity and comfortability with the "status quo" of the world.
Worldliness resigns itself to the way the world is, whereas prayer straddles two worlds and enters the struggle between those two worlds. Prayer straddles the fence between the world we witness with the eyes of our head and the world we can only see with the eyes of our heart, where Christ reigns in unrivaled glory (Ephesians 1:15-23). Prayer enters the struggle–the fray of a world misaligned with heaven–and refuses to lose heart and succumb to the world as it is. A soul unbothered by God's unhallowed name will struggle to pray what Jesus taught us to pray (Matthew 6:9-13). Worldly contentment is often the unrecognized threat that undermines perseverance in prayer.
The world, particularly in the affluence of the West, conditions us to embrace a peace-time mentality. But I love how our church has a way of resensitizing my soul to the world as it should be and the war we find ourselves in. We straddle the borders between the world to come and the world as it is as we gather to sing our way to glory. We set aside a good chunk of our corporate gatherings to pray in "circles" that radiate outwardly from our church: first, for us; second, for our city and another church in our city; third, for God to advance his gospel in our city and in the world. we listen to the King addressing us through His Word, longing to be "righted" as a people before He comes again to set things right, finally and forever. We conclude our gathering by reading the Great Commission. I leave our gatherings discontent with the world as it is and mindful of the world to come. And in that gap, the impulse to pick up the walkie-talkie and plead for heaven's interest to prevail here is awakened.
Our tendency is to lean away from tension, but leaning into this tension actually incentivizes prayer. If prayer, particularly mission-advancing prayer, feels far and a struggle for you, this means the practice of praying may not be the problem. It may be best to look global lostness square in the face and to meditate on the glories of Jesus that go unrecognized by billions of people each day. It may be best to pause long enough in our busy society to let the weight of humanity's enmity toward God settle in. Take a moment and recognize just how misaligned earth is with heaven. And it is right there, in that tense intersection of what should be and what is, that believing prayer finds a voice.