Why You May Struggle to Pray & Gospel Remedies
April 17, 2016 Speaker: Bret Rogers
Sermon from Selected Texts by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on April 17, 2016
A little bit of a different sermon today. We’ll be looking at numerous passages on the topic of prayer. James 1 will only serve as a spring-board into those other passages on prayer. We might call today an expansion on last week’s final exhortation to depend on God by asking, praying.
I actually didn’t expect to be preaching today, until I got a text message yesterday morning. I’ve been in Louisville, Kentucky all week for a pastors conference called Together for the Gospel, and Bryan was going to preach today. I’m very thankful for Bryan Walker, and his willingness to step in for me this Sunday. He had a sermon ready to go and everything. But he had an uncle who passed away this week, and so he’s out of town right now ministering to family. We should pray for him in just a second.
The conference was very edifying and one that I hope to share with you more in coming weeks. I’m very thankful for you letting me go to that conference. I ran into seventeen people who used to be members of Redeemer. Many of them are currently serving in leadership roles in other cities or states, and all of these leaders expressed great fondness for you all. Many of them expressed how much they learned through their time at Redeemer, and how much they’d love to come back to visit.
So be encouraged by the Lord’s work in this. These are folks that walked through hard times with us, and God used that time and your steadfastness through that time to shape and mature leaders, who are now serving elsewhere and implementing much of what they learned here. So be encouraged by the work of God’s grace in their lives through you. In fact, let me give thanks for that right now and also pray for Bryan before we get started…
Reviewing Asking God for Wisdom
What we’re going to do today is review what we covered last week on asking the Lord for wisdom in verses 5-8. And then we’re going to jump off that passage into the much broader topic of prayer. In particular, I want to provide gospel remedies to why you may struggle to pray. If you’re sick, you not only need a right diagnosis of your problem, but you need the doctor to give you the right remedy. The gospel of Jesus not only gets to the root of our soul-problems; it gives us—it is—the right remedy.
I’m not assuming that every one of you shares the same struggle to pray. A few of you have a very regular and rich prayer life. But I do want to address some very common reasons that professing Christians have struggled to pray. So, review verses 5-8 and then some gospel remedies for a struggling prayer life.
First off, let’s review James 1:5-8. God says through James, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it’ll be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that’s driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he’ll receive anything from the Lord; he’s a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” Let’s review…
We must connect our lacking in Christ-likeness to our asking for Christ-likeness. Being “perfect, complete, lacking in nothing” in verse 4 is James’ way of talking about Christ-likeness. We lack wisdom for living this kind of life. In fact, our various trials often expose that we lack the wisdom necessary for the trials to produce Christ-likeness. James knows this. God knows this.
But that doesn’t mean we’re hopeless. We have a generous God, verse 5 says. The wisdom he commands, he also delights to give: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
Of course, the passage also says we must ask in faith with no doubting. We shouldn’t ask with doubting. Doubting is faith’s opposite; and here it basically means to ask with divided loyalty. The person who doubts asks from a heart that wants God’s wisdom, but not if that wisdom has a cross attached to it. The right way to ask is in faith—which means that we ask with single-minded commitment to God. We ask trusting in God’s character, trusting in God’s Son, with a willingness to obey him with all that he gives us. If that’s the way we ask, God is pleased give us the wisdom of Christ.
Why You May Struggle to Pray
But we have to ask. Wisdom doesn’t come automatically. It comes through asking, through prayer. And this is where I want to jump off of James 1 into the much broader topic of prayer—in particular, why you may struggle to pray. Great if you walked away last Sunday understanding what verses 5-8 means; but it’s not going to do you any good if you’re not even willing to ask. So let’s talk about that some more. Let’s talk about ways you may struggle in your prayer life, and then apply various gospel remedies to that struggle.
1. Because you lack the Holy Spirit
Number one, perhaps you struggle to pray, because you lack the Holy Spirit. Now, in saying that, I’m not suggesting you seek a so-called “second blessing,” in order to stimulate your prayer life—as some charismatic circles might suggest. I’m making a much more basic point. I’m simply pointing us to what all Christians hold in common through the new birth, namely, the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit. Romans 8:9, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ doesn’t belong to God.” All who truly belong to God through Jesus have the Holy Spirit.
And the Bible says that when the Spirit indwells believers, they cry to God from their newly adopted status, “Abba! Father!” That’s Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6. When the Spirit fills your soul as God’s child, you want to talk to your new Father who took you out of the slums of sin and brought you into his family. You want to cry to him in the midst of need, “Abba!” That’s what comes out when the Spirit lives within.
But if there exists no desire to communicate with the Father of love, then you must begin with a more fundamental question: Am I even a Christian at all (cf. 2 Cor 13:5)? Do I truly have the Holy Spirit? That’s not a question you can answer on your own. We need to invite brothers and sisters in to help us with such discernment. That’s what the local church is for, to help confirm and assure us that we’re in Christ or not.
But here’s the gospel remedy if that’s you, if you don’t even want to pray. Run to the Lord Jesus. Trust in him. Rely on him with your life. The doorway to reconciliation with God stands open through Christ. Even if you discern that your so-called “Christian” life has been a sham up to this point, Jesus’ blood is sufficient to cover that too. He became a shameful spectacle to clothe you with honor and fill you with honesty. Repent and trust in his finished work, and you will become God’s child, enjoying the Spirit of adoption and learning to pray with the rest of God’s children.
2. Because you never learned how
Number two, perhaps you struggle to pray because you never learned how. You never knew that God commands it of all believers, like in Colossians 4:2, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (cf. Rom 12:12; 1 Thess 5:16). Or, perhaps you knew to pray—you see James saying ask God for wisdom—but you’ve just never understood how. Here’s the gospel remedy.
God inspired a written word to teach us to pray. The Bible does this in several ways. We get examples of prayers from the saints of old (e.g., 2 Sam 7:18-29; Pss 22; 51). Abraham and Moses and David—Oh man, especially in the Psalms, David just laying his heart bare before God. Crying for him to act. We can also learn to pray from the instructions of the apostles (e.g., Acts 4:23-31; Rom 10:1; 2 Cor 1:11; Eph 1:16-23)—the examples they set before us in what to pray for and how.
Sometimes Paul will even write out a prayer or two: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…” and so on (Eph 3:14-19).
That’s the written word. We also learn to pray from the incarnate word. Jesus himself teaches his disciples how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:5-14 is a famous example, and a good framework to use in your own quiet times. Several times over Jesus also teaches us what to pray for and sometimes gives parables on how to ask—we ask in his name, with persistence, with watchfulness, with readiness, with his word abiding in us (e.g., Matt 9:38; Luke 6:28; 18:1-8). So, if this is your struggle, let the written word and the incarnate word be your teachers. God doesn’t leave us ignorant; he gives us a vocabulary in the written word and then guides us through the incarnate word.
3. Because you think that you need nothing
Number three, perhaps you struggle to pray because you think that you need nothing. God’s people have often fallen prey to this self-deception. Whether Adam, Israel, or the church in Laodicea, people pretend they need nothing from God (Gen 3:1-7; Ps 20:7; Isa 30:1; Rev 3:17). It’s why David would say, “Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Some people lean on their own wisdom and resources and strength.
And that was true for all of us before God’s grace opened our eyes to see our desperate need for him. But it’s sometimes still true even for the Christian. We just have sophisticated ways of disguising it. Instead of realizing that we’re being self-reliant, we say that we’re too busy. We just need a schedule change instead of a heart change. Instead of admitting that we don’t know all the answers, we talk and criticize and complain too much in times when we should’ve been praying. Instead of asking God first, we ask God only after we exhaust all other resources and options.
Perhaps you remember the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:17—“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” That’s what it means to be a lukewarm church—it’s the self-sufficient cancer that says, “I need nothing.” And in a culture like the West, where everything we “need” is at our fingertips or within driving distance, the temptation to think we’re doing just fine without God rages all the more. Trust in self kills dependence on God. No praying life persists when self-confidence runs high.
How would you characterize our church? I’m not talking about how you might characterize each individual in this room, but how you’d characterize our church collectively, as a body? Would you say that we’re a people marked by desperate dependence on God in prayer?
David Platt has observed that “it’s dangerously possible to carry on with means and programs of our church and to do them all smoothly…and not realize that the Holy Spirit was absent from the process. We have made a deadly mistake…I am convinced the greatest hindrance to the advancement of the gospel to the nations may be the attempt of the church of God to do the work of God apart from the Spirit of God…Are we as the church…dependent on ourselves or are we desperate for His Spirit?”
We must consider the sober warning from Jesus. Sometimes the gospel remedy comes as warning. To pretend we need nothing from God makes the King of Kings vomit (Rev 3:16). That’s the warning to self-sufficiency: Jesus says, “I will spew you out of my mouth.” But he also says that we don’t have to remain in that state. There’s still opportunity to repent from self-reliance. We can still humble ourselves before him and admit, as Revelation 3:18 says, how wretched and desperate and poor and naked and needy we really are apart from the grace of our generous God. And then, with that humility, we need eyes opened wide to Jesus Christ.
He tells us, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” The gospel remedy to self-reliance comes with warning and it comes with promise, the promise of Jesus’ reward and his presence.
4. Because you doubt God’s ability
Number four, perhaps you struggle to pray because you doubt God’s ability. There are times we don’t pray simply because we doubt God’s ability to help or change anything. We start believing the lies that people are too sinful. The needs of this city are too great. The circumstances are too dire for God to work. The darkness is too thick for his light to penetrate. So, we don’t ask.
But the Bible is clear. When we pray, we approach no one less than God through his exalted Christ, who upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:3). According to Matthew 28:18, Jesus possesses the supreme right and infinite power to achieve all his desired goals for heaven and earth. If he possesses the supreme right and infinite power to achieve all his desired goals for heaven and earth, then none of our requests are too great for him to handle.
He never feels taxed by our requests as if he lacks the resources to follow through (Ps 50:10-12; Acts 17:25; Jas 1:5, 17). One of the most frequent questions I get when my children finish eating is, “Daddy, what can we have now?” And while getting them a second or third plate, I can’t help but think of the next grocery bill or tease out what this will mean when they turn 15. What am I doing? I’m checking to see if there’s going to be enough resources.
Jesus never worries over his resources. Your requests never overload him. He is infinite in wisdom and power and riches. He is the source of life itself, and by his word the visible and invisible universe is upheld (Heb 1:3; Col 1:16-17). We should ask for extraordinary things and take every confidence in Jesus’ ability to answer, because he is an extraordinary King. That’s the gospel remedy to doubting God’s ability—Christ is an extraordinary King with no limits to his power or authority or wealth. We pray big, because our God is great. We ask for more, because our God is generous.
5. Because you’ve been disappointed
But some of us have still been disappointed, haven’t we? So, number five, you may struggle to pray because you’ve been disappointed. Perhaps you’ve asked God for something, and it didn’t happen. And, out of some desire to protect yourself from further disappointment, you don’t know if you should ask again. Why persist?
Jesus told his disciples a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And then Jesus says this: “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.”
But sometimes disappointment means that we give up on our persistence in prayer. We do lose heart. But consider a few gospel remedies to this particular struggle with disappointment. To begin, we should remember that God answers prayer in his timing and not our own—whether that’s immediately or long after we’re gone from this world (Luke 18:1-7; Col 4:2; Rev 6:10-11).
Our smartphone culture—which trains us in immediate gratification and instant significance—subtly leads us to believe that if Jesus doesn’t answer our requests immediately, then he’s not trustworthy. He’s not generous. He doesn’t hear. But the fact that Jesus hasn’t answered a request you’ve made, doesn’t mean he’s failed you or ignored you. It could simply mean that in his infinite wisdom, he hasn’t answered it yet.
Or, God also answers prayer in ways we sometimes don’t expect, but which also serve our conformity to Christ (2 Cor 12:8-9). In other words, we might just be looking for the wrong things. We could think of Paul who cried out three times for the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh. But the Lord saw it fitting to answer Paul’s request in a different fashion. Instead of removing the thorn, he taught Paul to be content with his weakness, saying “My grace is sufficient for you.” It wasn’t that God didn’t answer Paul’s prayer. It was that God’s answer filled Paul’s thorn in the flesh with new meaning: when I am weak, Christ is strong. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me.
Or—and we certainly saw this in James—God may also refuse to answer prayer until we wake up to our disobedience (Josh 7:10-11; Ps 66:18; 1 John 3:22-23; 5:14; 1 Pet 3:7). James 1:7 said that the double-minded man ought not to suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord (cf. Jas 4:3). God’s refusal doesn’t mean he ignores us altogether, but that as a good Father, he gives us what is best for us—even when that means withholding certain blessings to sever us from idols and drive us into deeper longings for Christ.
Overall, the relationship with God in prayer isn’t for our immediate gratification, but to help us learn to say with our Lord, “Not my will be done, but yours” (Luke 22:42). And in that we will find satisfaction and joy and thanksgiving. So check your disappointment with some of these gospel truths. God is wise and generous to give us all we need, or to withhold what we want, all for our conformity to Christ.
6. Because you think you must be perfect
Number six, perhaps you struggle to pray because you think you must be perfect. Perhaps that last point about obedience makes you coil up inside. You heard James talk about asking in faith last week, and you wonder whether your prayers are filled with such a trust and single-mindedness. The link between prayer and obedience tempts you not to see God as a generous Father but as an exacting tyrant, who refuses your prayer requests unless you’re perfect.
It’s true, the Bible makes obedience a big deal in our praying (Ps 66:18; Matt 6:10, 33; 1 John 3:22-23; 1 Pet 3:7). But maybe it would help you to see that the whole point of James’ instructions to ask assumes that we’re lacking something. And even Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). We don’t have to be perfect, in order to pray—Jesus tells us to confess our sins as part of our asking. And James assumes that we’re not perfect, and that’s why we need to ask to begin with.
More than that, we should remember in our asking that entering God’s presence isn’t because of our own perfection, but because of Christ’s perfection for us. We come to God on no merit of our own, but solely on the merit of Jesus Christ and his righteousness imputed to us. Jesus obeyed for us—and did you know that that obedience even included his prayer life? Remember, he’s on his way to the cross, and he stops and prays with Peter, James, and John. And three times while he’s sweating drops of blood they’re across the way staring at the back of their eyelids. And that’s even after Jesus tries waking them up. But that didn’t keep him from obeying the Father. Even Jesus’ faithful prayer life gets imputed to you when you trust in him. His bank account is full; your bank account is empty. But when you trust in him, all that he has and all that he is becomes yours. He obeyed for you.
Jesus obeyed for us, Jesus died for us, and the Father approved of his life and his death by exalting him to his right hand where Jesus still prays for us even in all our weaknesses and imperfections and sin. If you’re God’s child, don’t feel like you must do something more to bend God’s ear to you. He’s already leant you his ear in Christ. We need not try to concoct some kind of pious tone or perfect sentences to ask, we can simply ask. Don’t feel like you must jump hurdles to get back to God; all the obstacles were torn down when Jesus died on the cross and caused you to be born again. Ephesians 3:12 says we even have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in Jesus.
So the gospel remedy to perfectionism in prayer is this: nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling,” as stated in the old hymn, Rock of Ages. We can pray with confidence (Eph 3:12; Heb 4:16) and yet imperfectly, because Christ lived, died, and still prays perfectly for us (cf. Mark 14:32-42; Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25). Come, then, freely before the Lord, resting wholly on the perfection of Jesus—and ask.
7. Because you believe it’s pointless
Number seven: perhaps you struggle to pray because you believe that it’s pointless. After all, isn’t God sovereign? Why pray if God preordained whatsoever comes to pass? Again, there’s a few gospel remedies for this.
To begin, the Bible never teaches that God’s absolute sovereignty undermines human responsibility. Rather, it presents them as being compatible. Clearest of all, we see this at the cross. Acts 2:23 says, “Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God [that’s absolute sovereignty] you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men [that’s human responsibility].” They’re compatible.
God’s sovereignty also becomes the only ground and hope of our prayers that God can and will act on our behalf. You can see that with the Lord’s Prayer—“your kingdom come; your will be done.” And you can see it in the prayers of the apostles in Acts 4:24. They begin their prayer, “Sovereign Lord.” Then they move to asserting God’s absolute sovereignty over the events of the cross (Acts 4:27-28). And then they give their request for boldness in the face of persecution: “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). In their minds, God’s sovereignty doesn’t undermine praying, it empowers it.
The Bible also teaches that God preordains the ends as well as the means, and prayer is the means through which God accomplishes his redemptive purposes. God gives prayers to his people in order to accomplish his purposes; and Christians get to be the privileged recipients interacting with God in his purposes (e.g., Matt 9:38; Acts 4:24-30; Rev 8:3-5). Think of all the different things the apostles tell us to pray for: prayers to bear fruit in every good work; prayers to live peaceable lives under governing authorities; prayers for Jesus to be glorified in the church; prayers that God would save people; prayers for healing; prayers for the gospel to penetrate the darkness. Again and again, we see that prayer is a means God uses to advance his purposes in the gospel.
But most importantly, we should also remember that prayer itself is a goal of the gospel. Yes, God is sovereign. Yes, God ordains prayer as a means. But more importantly, it’s one outworking of our reconciliation with God. Galatians 4:4-6, for example. It says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” So there’s the grace of God in Christ working on behalf of unworthy sinners. The Law looked at us in our sin and said, “Guilty! Deserving of condemnation!” And knowing this God sent his Son to live under the Law, fulfill all its demands perfectly, and then suffer as our blameless substitute, that the curse we deserved might be lifted forever. That’s gospel!
But there’s even more that his death secures for you. Verse 5, “so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” That’s prayer! Crying ‘Abba! Father!’ as an adopted son is a goal of the gospel (cf. Rom 8:12-15; Eph 2:12-18; Heb 4:14-16).
So, not only can we pray, because we’ve been reconciled to God, but also—and really get this emphasis—we get to pray, because we’ve been reconciled to God, to him who is infinite in glory and beauty and worth. We pray, because God is awesome; and communicating with him so freely in Christ—without fear of condemnation—is truly remarkable. The person who asks, “Why pray if God is sovereign, doesn’t get the point of the gospel!” The gospel reconciles us to God. We pray because we get God! We have fellowship with God that we once did not have and would not have.
Therefore, because of God’s sovereignty, because of his ordained means, and especially because of his grace in Christ, we enjoy praying. It’s not pointless, it’s about a relationship with the Sovereign God who reconciled us in Christ and achieves his purposes through our praying not apart from it. That includes asking for wisdom, as James tells us to do in verses 5-8.
So, those are seven reasons you may struggle to pray and some gospel remedies in each case. I don’t pretend that they’re exhaustive. The Scripture has much more to say about prayer and more encouragement for why we would join in asking our Father. But perhaps these seven will help fan into flame a passion to persevere in prayer. That it would help you not grow discouraged in your prayer life, but give you all the more reason to pray—all the more reason to ask God for wisdom.
And whatever may cause you to struggle in prayer—maybe I didn’t mention your particular struggle today. But I hope you see the main point, that the gospel meets us where we’re at in our struggle. It speaks directly to the heart. It gives a right diagnosis of our problem and then provides the remedy in Christ. The main point is that we keep the gospel central, even in our prayer life. It’s the gospel that not only gives us life in Christ; it’s also the gospel that keeps us devoted to prayer and enriches our prayer life.