Have you mastered prayer?
I haven’t. I suspect few Christians would report having mastered this great privilege and discipline. In fact, I suspect that most Christians may even feel burdened by their lack of prayer and the seeming ineffectiveness of prayer. We read “pray without ceasing” and it becomes “guilt without ceasing.”
If that happens to us, we’ve lost our grip on justification by faith alone apart from any works of our own. If our failures at prayer leave us feeling condemned, we’ve probably began to think of prayer as one of those spiritual duties that keeps God happy with us.
To be clear, prayer pleases God (1 Timothy 1:3). Christians ought to pray. But many of us need to learn how to pray as well as fail in prayer in light of the good news that Christ is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30).
I feel like I’m in a season of learning to pray again. This is good. I’m not burdened but eager, which I know does not come from my flesh but God’s Holy Spirit. I welcome God’s vision for my life as a man: “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 1:8). God wants me to pray, and I want to pray to God. And I’m praying.
But I’m not “good at it,” whatever being “good” at prayer means. Even thinking of being “good” at prayer reveals an insidious performance mentality and pride. Why not be rough and unpolished but genuine with God? Why not depend upon Christ’s offering of himself as my High Priest and righteousness rather than seeking to be “good” at prayer?
My mind still wanders. I talk too much in prayer. My petitions dominate rather than praise, though a bit less so of late. My requests seem hopelessly earthbound and physical rather than heaven-soaked and spiritual. I battle fatigue, which seems to pounce on me the moment my mind turns to prayer. And when I think of what God has done in my life through Christ His Son, I must admit that my prayers are weak and uninspired. He does far more than I have ever asked or thought.
So, I’m learning to pray… again. And I’m enjoying the learning. For instance, in two conversations in two weeks I’ve been reminded of the opportunity to “pray specifically.” Too often my prayers are general and vague. I’m praying for the right things in those general ways (i.e. conversions, God’s glory, etc.), but I’m not venturing a request that makes those desires tangible, specific, and so on. I suspect I don’t pray that way for one primary reason: a lack of faith masquerading as submission to God’s will. I don’t ask specific things of the Lord because I’ve learned to cover up unbelief with religious talk of God’s sovereignty and humility before God. Now God is sovereign and I want to be humble before a sovereign God, but does not God say simply to us, “Ask and you shall receive?” He does. So it’s not theological hubris to ask and ask specifically and specifically ask great things of God.
I’m learning to pray this way again. I suspect that once I’ve “learned” this time, the Lord will teach me yet more.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Cayman Islands. Pastor Thabiti is the author of What Is a Healthy Church Member?, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, and The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors. He also blogs regularly at Pure Church.