I have said it often and said it recently, that prayer has always been a struggle for me. It's not that I don't pray--I do!--but that I find it a battle to put my theology into action day-by-day and to live out my deepest convictions about prayer by actually praying. I experience little of the joy and sense of fulfillment that so many of the great pray-ers speak of. As often as not, I have to rely on the objective facts of what I believe about prayer more than any subjective feeling or sense of satisfaction.
Last week I received a jolt when I read H.B. Charles Jr.'s It Happens After Prayer. If I can read a whole book and hang on to one big application or one big challenge, I consider it a book that has been well worth the time I've invested in it. There were several helpful takeaways from Charles' book, but the one I expect to stick with me is this: "The things you pray about are the things you trust God to handle. The things you neglect to pray about are the things you trust you can handle on your own." On one level it's an obvious insight, but then again, the best insights usually are. I should have known it, and, in fact, I think I did know it. But I needed it clearly spelled out to me at this time in my life.
As I prayed last week, and as I gave attention to preparing a sermon, I was struck by a related thought: Prayerlessness is selfishness. I had been spending time praying as per Mike McKinley's oh-so-helpful guidelines and found myself praying that I would grow in love for those who would hear the sermon, that I would have wisdom to apply the text to their lives, that I would see how the passage confronts the unbelief of those who would hear it, and so on. And it struck me that for me not to pray, and not to pray fervently, during the process of sermon preparation would be the height of selfishness. I would be trusting that I could handle crafting the sermon and coming up with just the right applications all on my own. I would be effectively denying the Lord the opportunity to do his work through this sermon. "You go do something else; I've got this one!"
The text itself gave me an illustration. I was preaching the first chapter of Jonah and there we see Jonah aboard a ship in the middle of a storm so powerful that it threatens to destroy the boat and all aboard it. There is only one man on that ship who fears God, only one man who has the ability to cry out to a God who actually exists and who actually has the power to calm the storm. And he is the one man who refuses to cry out to his God, the one man who goes below and falls asleep. Even when the captain wakes him and rebukes him for his prayerlessness we get no indication that he prays. His prayerlessness is selfishness and further threatens the crew of that little ship.
If I believe that prayer works, if I believe that prayer is a means through which the Lord acts, if I believe that God chooses to work through prayer in powerful ways and in ways he may not work without prayer, then it is selfish of me not to pray. To pray is to love; not to pray is to be complacent, to be unloving, to be selfish.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for the pastor who does not pray through the process of preparing a sermon. He expresses love for his church when he prays and pleads for the Lord's wisdom and insight.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for the father who does not pray for his children, for their safety, their sanctification, their salvation, their obedience, their every need.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for the church member who does not pray for the Lord's grace to be extended to his friends, for those who are battling a specific sin and seeing both encouraging victories and heartbreaking failure.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for the Christian who does not pray for his neighbors, that the Lord would save them and that the Lord would even use him as the one to share with them the good news of the gospel.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for each of us when we neglect to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are facing persecution. To neglect to pray for them is to tell the Lord that he may as well allow them to continue to suffer.
And if prayerlessness is selfishness, than one of the ways I can best love my church and family and friends and neighbors and distant brothers and sisters is to go to my knees and to intercede on their behalf.
Tim Challies is author of the weblog Challies.com: Informing the Reforming and lives near Toronto, Canada. He is also author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment.