The evangelical church is known for many things. Prayer is not one of them. A typical Bible study is likely to fill seats far quicker than a typical prayer meeting. Within the evangelical church, prayer is perhaps the weakest of all Christian disciplines. Don Carson has said it well:
We are better at organizing than agonizing; better at administrating than interceding; better at fellowship than fasting; better at entertainment than worship; better at theological articulation than spiritual adoration; better—God help us!—at preaching than at praying!
What is the problem? Why do we pray so little? J. I. Packer helpfully suggests: “I believe that prayer is the measure of the man, spiritually, in a way that nothing else is, so that how we pray is as important a question as we can ever face!” We often talk about how much we struggle with prayer. In point of fact, we don’t struggle with prayer; we struggle with priorities. We always make time to do what is important to us. If we don’t pray as we ought, it is because we don’t prioritise prayer as we ought.
Too often, we are like the people in the parable of the banquet (Luke 14:16–24). When the master of the house threw a banquet, he invited people from all walks of life. One by one, they made excuses as to why they could not attend. Like those people, we have all sorts of reasons why we can’t pray as much as we would like. At root, our excuses are just that: excuses.
R. C. Sproul once observed that “we always choose according to our strongest inclination at the moment of choice.” He is correct. In any given moment, faced with any particular choice, we choose what we value the most. We may feel compelled by an external force (a threat to our life, for example, may compel us to make a particular choice) but, regardless, in that moment, we have made a value decision.
When we don’t pray as we would like to pray it is because, in the moment, when we are presented with the opportunity to pray or to do something else, we value the something else more than we value prayer.
Jesus never faced this problem and it was evident to those who knew him. That is why, after walking with him day in and day out, the disciples longed, more than anything else, to learn how to pray. Luke records, “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples’” (Luke 11:1). Seeing how important prayer was to Jesus, they realised that it should be important enough to them to learn how to do it well.
If the book of Acts is anything to go on, they learned their lesson. To be sure, it took time—and a resurrection—but Acts records the disciples and the churches they led constantly in prayer.
Here is the simple truth: If you struggle with prayerlessness, you struggle with priorities. Learning to pray means, among other things, learning to align your priorities with God’s priorities. It means deciding that prayer is important—more important than the extra thirty minutes sleep or getting in your exercise for the day—and getting before God to pray.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he did that. But before they could learn how to pray they first needed to learn that they must pray. They needed to learn that prayer must be a priority. Allow the disciples’ question—“Lord, teach us to pray”—to impress upon you the priority of prayer. Repent of misplaced priorities. Ask forgiveness for elevating other concerns above prayer. Recognise your dependence upon God and lean on his grace to continually make prayer a pressing priority.