Everyone knows we should pray more than we do, that prayer is really important, and that any hero of the faith has had prayer as a massive ingredient of their life. Even Jesus had to pray. After reading through Donald Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer, I have noticed five barriers to prayer in my life, and some ways of tunneling through or around them.
1. God knows better than I do
Why pray when God knows best and will do as he planned to do anyway? God doesn’t need my advice, and I’m not sure he even wants it. I sometimes feel disillusioned about the futility of advising God in matters that seem too small for him to care.
The way around this barrier can be to remember that God wants us to learn to think like him and ask from him on that basis. Prayer is a way of connecting with God by asking him for things, a bit like my children coming to me to ask for things they can’t do for themselves. God wants us to live dependently on him, and we can grow in this by asking for the things that we know he wants to do for us. Prayer is not about trying to pry God’s hand open, but to connect through asking. We can be sure that he will do what is best for us and according to his purposes.
2. Prayer is strange
That we can talk to the invisible God at any time and anywhere without any devices is mysterious. God’s nearness to his people to hear their prayers seems almost trite and too good to be true. The strangeness of prayer is that we are to follow the example of a woman who nagged a judge, and a man who wore out his neighbor asking for bread late at night.
To get around this barrier, I think we should acknowledge that prayer is something strange, from out of this world. It’s not a normal conversation. Prayer, when rightly understood, is a real breakthrough to heaven by which we directly engage the infinite God. It seems less strange to us the more we engage God in prayer. We might as well get used to it now, since it’s likely that we will continue praying in the resurrection.
3. We pray with mixed motives
James 4:2-3 warns that the people don't have what they need because they haven’t asked for it, or their asking is amiss from selfish desires. I have prayed for things almost flippantly, just because there were things I wanted, like my children asking for more toys at the store. It seems that God can ignore me just as I sometimes ignore the plea for one more stuffed animal toy, or another Lego set.
This barrier causes us to second-guess and give up prayer, but I think it’s not a high barrier. God knows that we’re dust, full of mixed motives, and fickle like children. Our confidence can be to seek God in prayer, and let God and his word shape our requests. We can look at God’s past faithfulness and promises to others and us. Maybe we’re just too hasty with requests, so taking a bit to focus on God, as in John 15:7 and 1 John 5:14-15, will clarify our vision for what we need. For example, I pray with great confidence that God would enable me to love my wife, be gentle with my children, be attentive to my students, and less grouchy when things don't go my way. God is clear that these are all things he wants for me, so for me to ask him for them is low-hanging fruit. In this way, I can adopt God’s motives as my motives, and ask accordingly.
4. Prayer is one-sided communication
I often feel that when I pray I’m leaving voicemail messages for God, and he doesn’t seem to call back. Ever. But God is not deaf (Psalm 4:3) and he assures us that he is listening when his children pray to him.
Maybe the barrier is from the illusion that we can talk to God just like we talk to a creature, in that we ask and get answers. God is not like us, and his habit of meeting us with silence is not the stoic father who cares nothing for the petty cries of his children, like some bear that can’t be bothered with the cubs. Prayer is not explained in the Bible primarily as a conversation with God, but an appeal to him for action and help. We experience God in many ways, often when he assures, guides, or even speaks to us when we were not expecting him to show up. God is present to us in many ways, and speaks in many ways, primarily through his word. (That’s a great help to us so that we don’t garble or forget the message in the way that we might if most of his communication to us was in the still, small voice.) We might want God to talk back the way another creature would, but that’s another mode of relationship prayer is not built for fulfilling. God has extended himself to us in the gift of salvation; prayer is one way we receive his grasp of us.
I have experienced much failure in prayer. I cringe when I think about what the percentage might be. I notice that my intensity varies in prayer for things partly depending on how much I really care about the situation I’m praying about. I’m not saying that we earn anything from God by praying repeatedly for something. There is something that I notice in myself to care more and more over time, especially when it’s a burden for someone else or something I think is important to God. I enter the prayer a bit more. I see the same thing in my children when they remind me of some promise I made, or when they ask 28 times for something they really want. It does something for them to put that much into coming after me, as compared to when they just ask once for some dumb toy, and then don’t mention it again. God’s silence is an invitation that we keep asking, seeking, and knocking until we have an answer. If we give up, then maybe we learn that we didn’t really need it.
5. Distractions and distresses
I feel so cluttered with the issues of my life that I have difficulty focusing on God. I get bored; I fall asleep. Sometimes the easiest way to get to sleep at night is to start praying. The distractedness that afflicts us when we try to focus on God in prayer is because prayer is a struggle to break through from earth to heaven. Our normal mindset is independence and self-sufficiency, so prayer is unnatural as the practice of dependence on God. Through prayer, we acknowledge that we cannot do anything right in life without God.
This barrier might be partly erected by us, as we paradoxically desire to be distracted and hide from God. We might prefer to indulge our fears, our illusions, and our vanity instead of facing God in honesty, knowing that he alone knows the truth about us in all of the mess of our motives. To get around this barrier, we may need to ask God for strength. The distractions are there, much like a blaring television or endless emails, or the array of blogs to read. The skill of prayer is to practice with God’s help to turn our back on the things that eclipse us from God. Sometimes it’s hard to develop a skill. Just because Christians are supposed to pray doesn’t mean that prayer is something anyone is automatically good at or that it should be easy to do. We need help, and God has help to give us.
Finally, one of the best encouragements from Bloesch is that high quality prayer need not be long in duration. A rich prayer life is often worked out in very short prayers throughout the day (and night). This is the communion with God that we crave and were made for, being with him throughout all the vicissitudes of life. Prayer gives us that connection to God, but it’s still hard sometimes.