BEYOND THE GUILT-TRIP
When churches want to motivate people to pray, they will typically describe prayer as a ‘spiritual discipline’. Sometimes they will speak about having a ‘quiet-time’. And they will often talk about ‘being more committed’, ‘making prayer a priority’, and how we ‘ought to be praying more’.
The problem is, all this talk of ‘commitment’ and ‘discipline’ and ‘priorities’ generally doesn’t work.
J. D. Greear says: “If you really want to embarrass the average Christian, just ask them to tell you about his or her private prayer life. That’s the one thing most Christians are woefully deficient in.”
In his book “A Call to Spiritual Reformation”, D. A. Carson writes: “Most pastors testify to the decline in personal, family, and corporate prayer across the nation… Two years ago at a major North American seminary, fifty students who were offering themselves for overseas ministry during the summer holidays were carefully interviewed so that their suitability could be assessed. Only three of these fifty – 6 percent! – could testify to regular quiet times, times of reading the Scriptures, of devoting themselves to prayer. It would be painful and embarrassing to uncover the prayer life of many thousands of evangelical pastors.”
At best, driving people through commitment leads them to see prayer like a chore, just like any other item on their to-do-list. At worst, it creates an enormous sense of guilt. It makes people feel like they’re not disciplined enough, not good enough and not spiritual enough.
But what if prayer wasn’t meant to be a chore? What if it wasn’t meant to be driven by guilt? What if prayer was meant to be the greatest privilege in the world?
DRIVEN BY GRACE
Ultimately prayer is no different to every other part of the Christian life. Churches can either drive people through guilt or drive them through grace.
Churches that drive people through guilt focus on what we do for God. Their main goal is to get people to behave like Jesus.
Churches that drive people through grace focus on what God does for us. Their main goal is to get people to depend on Jesus.
John Ortberg explains it like this: “In Australia there are two main methods for keeping cattle on the ranch. One is to build a fence around the perimeter. The other is to dig a well in the centre of the property. I think Jesus is more like a well than a fence”.
Churches which build fences tend to want to control people. They’re constantly looking over people’s shoulders making sure they don’t put a foot wrong. They emphasize rules and regulations, discipline and commitment.
But churches which dig wells know that people need to be free. They know it’s pointless trying to get people to change their behaviour without first changing their heart. They continually remind people of God’s goodness and kindness. They know that we are all sinners who desperately need Jesus.
With all this in mind, we really only have two options: Either we continue to be driven by guilt and shame, beating ourselves up for not being more committed to prayer. Or instead we begin to be driven by grace, reminding ourselves that God longs to answer our prayers, that He loves spending time with us, and that like all Fathers, He can’t wait to give good things to His children when they ask.
COMMITMENT VS. DESPERATION
Suppose you’re swimming with some friends, and one of them challenges you to a competition to see who can swim the longest distance underwater. You’re up for the challenge, and you decide that no matter what you’re going to win. About 45 seconds into the race, you begin to find things extremely difficult. You’ve told yourself that you’re going to be committed. You’ve told yourself that you won’t fail. Out of all your friends, you’re easily the most determined to win. But now you’re finding that your commitment to win isn’t enough. And before you’ve even realized what you’re doing, you’ve come up for air.
Why did this happen? How can it be that your commitment failed you? Why did you give up so easily?
Well the fact is, it didn’t matter how determined you were. Eventually your commitment to win was overpowered by your desperate need for oxygen.
Unfortunately, many people see becoming a Christian in a similar way.
We often hear people describe their conversion experience as the moment they ‘made a commitment’. When church leaders explain how a person can have their sins forgiven and go to heaven, they often tell people that they need to ‘commit to living the Christian life’. But there eventually comes a time when we’re unable to keep our commitment. No amount of determination and effort and self-discipline can keep us from failing at some point along the journey.
The good news is that we are not saved by our commitment.
Just as our desperate need for oxygen is far more powerful than our commitment to stay underwater, our desperate need for Jesus is far more powerful than any commitment we might make to live the Christian life.
Becoming a Christian is not about committing to live the Christian life. Rather it’s about realizing that we are unable to commit to anything, that we are completely helpless to save ourselves, and that we lie naked before God in desperate need of a Saviour.
THE REAL REASON PEOPLE PRAY
Just as becoming a Christian is not about determination, effort or commitment, our willingness to pray also has nothing to do with our our determination, effort or commitment.
We pray because we’re desperate.
We don’t have to discipline ourselves to breathe. We breathe because we’re desperate.
The same is true with prayer. We cry out to God because we’re desperate for His power, His comfort, and His guidance. We pray because we’re desperate for Him.
This is why the pastor who has committed His whole life to God struggles to spend half-an-hour in prayer, while the single mum who isn’t even sure that God exists spends every spare moment praying for help.
When interviewed about his book ‘Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God’, author Tim Keller said…
Prayer is a response that people feel when they sense insufficiency. People reach out, even if they’re not sure that there’s a God, when they don’t feel self-sufficient, either their wisdom isn’t sufficient for the moment or their strength or something else. Since almost everybody, at some point, feels that insufficiency, and since there’s… a very widespread sense that there’s almost an absolute power behind the universe that when the insufficiency comes, it triggers prayer. It’s almost an instinct…
If the doctor said you have a fatal condition, and unless you take this medicine every night from 11:00 to 11:15, and swallow these pills, you will be dead by morning. If that was the case… you would never miss. You would never say, I was too tired, or, I didn’t get to it, or, I was watching a movie, and I didn’t leave time. You never would do that.
And so when people ask: How am I going to get to prayer? How am I going to deal with distractions? I say, maybe you don’t believe you need prayer. And that is a theological, spiritual problem, and there is nothing I can do except tell you to get your heart and your mind straight on that.
PRAYER CAN BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK
What if instead of feeling guilty for not praying, we began to feel disappointed that we missed an opportunity to pray? What if instead of seeing prayer as a chore, we began to see it as the best part of our day? What if instead of seeing spending time with God as something that we should do, we began to see it as something that we get to do?
Prayer doesn’t have to be driven by guilt. There is a better way.