What follows is the Introduction to my new book When Prayer Is a Struggle: A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer (P&R, 2021), with the foreword by Colin S. Smith. If you’ve benefited from my writing in the past, consider pre-ordering a copy of the book that comes out August 25, 2021. That will help me successfully launch the book and get it into more hands over the long-term.
“Everyone struggles to pray. Is a good prayer life even possible?”
I regretted those words as soon as they left my mouth. I knew that such a thought reflected a shallow view of God, of His gospel, and of prayer. And yet I had just blurted it out in front of our entire Bible study group!
While avoiding eye contact with others for a few minutes, I reflected on what I had said. Even though I knew my words were wrong, they reflected what I had felt for a long time. I had had many ups and downs in pursuing God through prayer. I was frustrated. A good sermon or book would encourage me for a few days or weeks, but then I’d drift back to where I had started and feel defeated by seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I had thought that attending seminary or holding leadership positions would fix this—but to no avail. Why did my growth in the daily discipline of prayer always sputter out?
Have you ever felt like I did? I suspect that you also struggle to pray if you picked up a book with this title. Maybe you’ve followed Christ for years; you love His Word and His church. But when it comes to prayer, you feel like a car stuck in mud. You make an effort, but your wheels are spinning and you’re not going anywhere. You know there’s more to God and the Christian life, but you aren’t sure how to grow in prayer. You know the struggle to pray is real.
But did you know the struggle is also good?
THE STRUGGLE IS . . . GOOD
You heard me right. Think about it: you don’t struggle to do what you want to avoid. For example, I don’t struggle with the urge to light wads of my hard-earned cash on fire or take a sledgehammer to my car. I do sometimes struggle to exercise, even though I desire to be healthy. I do struggle to steward my money wisely, even though I do want to be faithful with what God has entrusted to me. Similarly, we all struggle to pray because we have a desire to pray. If we didn’t have the desire, we wouldn’t have a struggle.
The desire to pray isn’t a given. When man rebelled in the garden of Eden, his sin cut him off from communion with God (see Gen. 3:8, 22–24). “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,” writes the prophet Isaiah, “and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2). The apostle Paul says similarly, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10–11; see also Psalm 14:1–3). Spiritually speaking, there is an infinite chasm between sinful humanity and a holy God. His face is hidden from sinners. He doesn’t have to answer your prayer any more than you would have to do a favor for someone who betrayed you.
Thankfully, God sent His Son Jesus to bridge the gap between sinful humanity and himself. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross has atoned for our sins (see Rom. 5:8–10; Heb. 10:12). His resurrection justifies us before God the Father (see Rom. 4:25). His ascension guarantees that He intercedes for us at God’s right hand (Rom. 8:34). Because of the work of Jesus, God has filled His children with His Spirit, causing our hearts to cry, “Abba, Father!” when we pray (Gal. 4:6) and giving us the desire to seek Him and honor Him. For those who trust in Jesus and repent of their sins, God the Father is no longer inapproachable—not only are we now able to pray to Him but, in fact, He is the one who invites us to pray. Because of the gracious invitation God issues through the gospel of His Son, prayer is possible.
That’s all good news. Our struggle to pray is good, because it reveals that the Spirit has given us a desire to pray. The trouble comes when competing desires distract us from pursuing God. (We also face an enemy who hates it when God’s children pray and will do whatever it takes to stop us from engaging in the powerful act.) Sometimes these struggles are because of a lack of head knowledge: What is prayer about, and why should we do it? Sometimes they are a heart issue—our sin or pain trips us up. Other times, we simply need to learn practical ways to walk out what we already know.
THE FOUNDATION OF TRUE PRAYER
Let’s look at two heart postures that are essential for a true and growing life of prayer.
Faith in God
The number one obstacle to prayer is a lack of faith. James 4:2 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” And we do not ask because we do not believe—either in God or in prayer. “Without faith it is impossible to please him,” writes the author to the Hebrews, “for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). The more we participate in faith-building activities like reading God’s Word and fellowshipping with God’s people, the easier prayer will become. Prayer is the natural overflow of a growing faith.
Love for God
Not just any type of faith pleases God; even the demons have faith—and shudder (see James 2:19)! True prayer flows from a love for God. When God the Father invites us to Himself through the gospel of His Son, we become His children (see Eph. 1:3–6). As we live in loving obedience to our heavenly Father, we experience more of Him (see John 14:21). And as we experience more of Him, we grow in our love for Him, desire Him more, and, thus, pray more. Because of this, When Prayer Is a Struggle is a book about prayer, but it’s also a book about the whole Christian life, because we were made to love and worship our Creator, and prayer is one essential expression of devotion to our Lord.
You can’t overcome any struggle involving prayer without both faith in God and love for Him. Faith is the breath in the lungs of the praying life, and love is the heartbeat. We can’t move forward on the path of knowing God as we pray without breath in our lungs or blood flowing through our veins. Keep faith and love in mind as we walk through the nine struggles that are presented in this book.
A HEAD-HEART-HANDS APPROACH TO OVERCOMING OBSTACLES
A couple of years ago, my brother Kenny talked me into running an obstacle-course race. The idea was simple: run a 5K and conquer a couple of dozen obstacles along the way. My brother was an accomplished athlete who had won many of these races before; I was a newbie whose primary goal was to not die. He finished the race about an hour before I started mine, which allowed me to pick his brain about the course and hear his advice before running it myself. The wisdom that he shared made the race easier for me and more enjoyable; I avoided rookie mistakes and approached challenging obstacles with the wisdom of a veteran. (I also stayed alive!)
I hope to coach you through obstacles to prayer the way my brother coached me through the obstacles in that race. I’m not a gray-haired sage who has all the answers. I’m a normal guy who realized that he struggled to pray and went on a journey to pursue a more faithful and joyful life of prayer while pleading to God for help along the way. I’m also only one person—and so I’ve included quotes and stories from other believers, both past and present, to show how they have overcome their struggles and grown in their own love for God.
My driving motivation for writing this book has been the belief that a life of faithful, fruitful, and joyful prayer is within the grasp of every Christian. God has helped me in spectacular ways, and I know that He will help you, too. Do you believe this? If so, will you join me on a journey of thinking long and hard about why we struggle to pray and how we can face our struggles head-on?
Together we will follow a head-heart-hands approach, as we
- see how gospel truths speak to the struggles we face in prayer (because biblical truth is the solid foundation for faithful prayer);
- diagnose issues of the heart that keep us from true prayer (because our hearts matter to God); and
- learn how to move forward in prayer (because informed heads and transformed hearts still need practical help).
I’m a firm believer that you don’t learn to pray by reading books any more than you learn to ride a bike by hearing a classroom lecture—you learn by doing. That means if you find yourself with the desire to pray while reading this book, set it aside and pray—that’s what the book is all about! For this reason, each chapter also includes a prayer and reflection questions.
God can and will change you as you read this book, and that’s not because the book is so good—it’s because He is so good. He is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Read this book prayerfully. Read it humbly. Read it expectantly. It might surprise you how a little help can take you a long way when God is the one blessing it.
Father God, thank You for calling me to be part of Your family in Jesus. You know my struggles with prayer, my lack of faith, and my lack of love for You and others. Help my unbelief! Increase my love. Cause me to see the world as You do and to see prayer as a gift from Your gracious hand. Convict me of sin and lead me to treasure the cross more greatly. Thank You for all You’ve done for us by making prayer possible and powerful. In Jesus’s name, amen.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
- Have you ever felt stuck in your attempts to pray—like a car in the mud with its wheels spinning? If so, why?
- Explain in your own words why struggling to pray is actually good.
- Look at this book’s table of contents. Which of the nine chapters of the book do you think you need the most? The least?
- Why are faith and love both crucial for growth in prayer? What would happen if you lacked one or the other?
Table of Contents:
Foreword by Colin S. Smith
Introduction: The Struggle Is Real
1. I Forget Why Prayer Matters
2. I Don’t Know What to Pray
3. I Feel Too Guilty to Pray
4. I’m Not Sure God Hears Me
5. I Have Mixed Motives
6. I Can’t Focus
7. I’m So Unorganized
8. I’m Too Stressed
9. I’m Too Busy
Conclusion: The Struggle Is Worth It
Pre-order When Prayer Is a Struggle on Amazon.