Why do we struggle to pray? Why is it so hard to be faithful to the prayer closet? Why does it seem that sometimes our walk with God is characterized more by drudgery than delight? Are we just supposed to be satisfied that prayer gets done, even though our time in prayer is fraught with cold-hearted mutterings and unfocused mind-wanderings? A duty done – is that the lofty goal of the prayer warrior? These are questions I began answering in my previous post. (If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do so before you finish this article.)
Weakness in the prayer closet is the battle of every child of God. Prayer is unnatural because it is supernatural. It takes faith to persevere – yea – to excel in prayer. Prayer is contrary to the flesh because it is an activity dependent on the spirit. Jesus said upon discovering his slumbering, prayerless disciples, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41)
Weak flesh is our problem and will be until the day of redemption. But there are bad habits we develop, and counter-productive ideas we entertain that further hinder our private devotions. In my opinion, the most egregious of all prayer-hindering ideas is a subtle legalism that I’ve noticed in my own life and in the lives of others. I think it’s a common problem that needs addressing.
Understandably, fundamental Baptists wince at the word “legalism.” We’re accused of it often enough (and sometimes the shoe fits). Legalism has been so misdefined and abused by fundamentalists and evangelicals alike for so long, that it has become nothing more than a pejorative. This is unfortunate, because legalism is a real and dangerous problem.
Legalism is not a strict code of conduct, nor is it only works-based salvation. Legalism is the idea that we can earn God’s favor through human effort. Legalism is a battle with two fronts: justification and sanctification, and the battle has spilled over into the prayer closet.
“Legalistic prayer? How could it be?” some may wonder. Simple: when we force upon ourselves some man-made requirement about our prayer life. This usually takes the shape of time allotment.
“I have to prayer for an hour, or I’m not right with God,” is the sentiment of many. And so they drag their feet to the prayer closet, and put in an hour of cold, heartless prayer – all the while watching their clocks and wondering why the hour seems to crawl at a snail’s pace. Is this how God wants us to commune with Him? Where does the Bible say that we have to prayer for one hour or we are miserable failures? Does it? No, it does not (and Matthew 26:40 is not a proof text for it).
The “sweet hour of prayer” is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t the length of the prayer that makes it sweet. On the contrary, the Bible repeatedly commends the virtue of brief, sincere prayer. Some of the greatest prayers in the Bible were only a few sentences long.
In my days at Hyles-Anderson College, Bro. Hyles often mentioned his devotional schedule: 19-21 hours of prayer a week. That’s an average of about 3 hours of prayer a day – something unfathomable to the average Bible college student. The implication to many of us was that unless we were praying for 3 hours a day, we were not walking with God as we should. Though Hyles never explicitly said it, that’s what many thought, including me.
The praise-worthy servants of God from yesteryear have many similar stories of generous portions of their day spent in sacred duties. We read of Luther, Whitefield, Calvin, and others that would pray for hours and hours a day. It’s easy to feel like a prayer failure in light of the testimonies of these giants of the Church. What we fail to see is that these men were not right with God because they prayed for lengthy periods of time. No, their lengthy devotions were manifestations of the passion they had for God. It’s something you grow into. It’s not something you can step into just because you scheduled it to be so. You can’t go from walking with God sporadically to walking with God for hours a day overnight. Try it, and you’re likely to find yourself discouraged by the lack of passion in focus in prayer.
I am not down-playing the virtue of hours in the prayer closet. I enjoy those long seasons of prayer. The Savior was known to pray through the night, but He didn’t do that every night. And I think it’s admirable that some men of God spend hours every day in prayer and meditation. I don’t. I can’t.
The prayer time requirement sucks the life out of the prayer warrior. It is a subtle form of legalism that has convinced us that we earn God’s favor like an hourly wage. Phooey on that. God is more interested in you prayerful passion and fervency than your time on the clock.
Should we schedule a time to pray? Yes, have a time. Spontaneous prayer is no more holy than scheduled prayer. But whether it is 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, or whatever, let your heart pour out its prayer with passion and fervency. If you’ve scheduled 30 minutes of prayer, but you’re done in 20, don’t feel like a failure. Take the extra 10 minutes to read more of His word, memorize a verse, or write a journal entry.
Determine that prayer will not be about filling time, but about fervent intercession. A legalistic focus on time brings death to the prayer life, but focusing on fervency, sincerity and passion brings joy and peace.
“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” James 5:16