So why do we today find prayer so difficult? I suspect the answer to this question will differ between the Western World and Eastern World!
By world standards, I live in an affluent Western country. This impacts my prayer life! I can become cynical. Let me explain.
There are many good things that individuals and our society at large has had to work very hard to accomplish. Those are things we like to enjoy – new buildings, break-throughs in medical science, sporting successes, the ability to purchase a new home, the promotion at work, the grades at school or TAFE or university. With every success comes the ‘pat on the back’! This reinforces the idea that we are good, that we can accomplish anything that we put our minds too, that we are self-sufficient. Yet from a western (and secular) point of view – what role is God allowed to have in that success? Usually little.
That said, as good as things get, there are still the bad things that confront our world: sickness, disappointment, failure, unemployment, breakdown in relationship. If we were consistent as a society, wanting to take all credit – we would look at the bad things and work out where we did wrong. But that is not generally the case. It is often God who gets the blame for any of the bad things that occur, while we as a society pat ourselves on the back for the good things. The result: we are caused to question the goodness of God.
Here is where cynicism takes root.
Driving our western cynicism is the relentless pursuit of perfectionism. That drive to have the perfect relationship, be in the perfect job, have the perfect family, enjoy the perfect social life, attend the perfect school or university, groom the perfect body. Yet, despite every effort, we cannot call all the shots. We cannot control all that happens. And so, at some point, we come to realise how powerless we really are and it leaves us with a critical or disappointed spirit and an unhealthy cynicism about our world or God.
As a Christian living in the western world, I am at risk of an unhealthy cynicism. In this context, prayer doesn’t work! Prayer is pointless as if we are talking to the wind.
Thankfully, the Bible takes a different view. The prayers in the Bible engage evil, they acknowledge both the good and the bad, they express a dependence upon God who hears and cares and answers. And the people praying in the Bible don’t give up on life, they don’t expect no as the answer, they don’t assume they have the final say and can determine what is right or wrong. The people praying in the Bible call upon a Father who can deliver and who is loving whilst remaining just and exercises all good.
For a decade or so, I have been involved in sending Australian church teams to India to teach pastors and key leaders Bible subjects. It is a Christian meeting that brings the west to the east!
When Christians pray in India, they are free of many of the western trappings that I experience in Australia. One of the Australian Team Leaders wrote to me about the way he saw Christians praying in India:
“Over chai at afternoon tea, a number of Pastors approach me asking for prayer. Prayer for their children. Prayer for their ministry. Prayer for themselves and their own struggles. What a privilege to share with one another and bring our needs before our Heavenly Father. Yet again I am rebuked by the urgency & immediacy with which my Indian brothers and sisters pray. Prayer isn’t an afterthought. Prayer is never plan B. Prayer is their first resort. It is their instinct and reflex. I’m reminded each time I come to India, that the western self-reliance ingrained in my DNA, robs me of the intimacy of prayer. It foolishly lulls me into thinking I’m strong when in reality I’m helplessly weak. Oh Lord, rid me of my self-reliance and bring me to my knees in heartfelt, honest, dependent prayer.” (ML, 2015)
The faithfulness in prayer displayed by those brothers and sisters in India bears a closer resemblance to the way the Bible talks about prayer, than what is displayed in many western Christians.
The impossible self-reliant perfectionism of many western countries breeds an unhealthy cynicism – and one casualty, is prayer. Cynicism looks the wrong direction. It looks for the cracks in faith instead of looking at Jesus. Prayer should not be given up on just because our world thinks it has all the answers. And prayer should not be the last resort when our world realises that it doesn’t have all the answers. The more self-reliant we think we are, the less we will recognise the need and the privilege it is to be able to call upon God in prayer.
For other articles in this series:
Faithful in Prayer
Talking to God
Prayer in the Bible
Prayer in Western Society
Praying the Lord’s Way
Tips for Prayer