Why Do We Find It So Difficult to Pray?

This is the first of a five-part series on how God invites us to pray. Check back in throughout the week for the remaining four posts.

I think it was theologian D.A. Carson who said that if you really want to embarrass the average Christian, just ask them to tell you about their prayer life. Many of us can impress others with our Bible knowledge or our evangelism stories. But our private prayer lives? Not so much.

This is no small matter, as Jesus himself said that we can do nothing apart from him (John 15:5). Not only that, but Jesus himself modeled a ministry that was saturated with prayer. Why? Because Jesus lived with the constant awareness that even he could do nothing on his own. What he did on this earth, he claimed, was not done “of his own accord” but rather in response to seeing his Father at work (John 5:19).

Do we really think ourselves more capable of dealing with the complexities of life than Jesus? How is it that what was fundamental to Jesus—and, I might add, the early church—is merely supplemental to our churches?

Why do we find it so difficult to pray?

Most of us would say that our prayer problems are discipline problems. We don’t pray enough for the same reason we don’t work out regularly or eat alfalfa sprouts. So our “solutions” tend to take the form of resolutions. Every now and then we find ourselves practicing slightly better habits, but it never quite catches.

I suspect that the real reason we don’t pray more consistently has more to do with theology than discipline. It’s not that we have bad habits; we have bad beliefs. Deep down, we just aren’t sure how much good prayer actually does.

Nobody wants to admit this in church. But it’s true. Sometimes you pray and things happen. Other times, however, you pray and things don’t happen. Perhaps more troubling, at other times you forget to pray … and then the thing you forgot to pray for happens anyway.

I’ve been there. So it’s encouraging to me to turn to Scripture and find that I’m not alone. In Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray. And he responds with a couple stories that deal with the same obstacle we keep tripping over—unanswered prayer.

Here’s the story:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

(Luke 11:5-9 CSB)

A few details may highlight just how bizarre this teaching is. In first century Palestine, there were no 24-hour grocery stores or late-night Taco Bells. So if you needed food, your options were limited. On the other hand, hospitality was huge, so bothering your neighbor—while obnoxious—would actually have been your best bet.

The sleeping neighbor, though, has a lot of reasons to find this request annoying.

First, it’s “midnight,” which literally means “the middle of the night”—not like in Chapel Hill, where “midnight” is still three hours before bedtime.

Second, he’s in bed with his children, because they didn’t have mammoth homes with individual bedrooms in the first century. So to get up and get bread, he’s got to wake everybody up. Parents, I don’t have to tell you how irritating it would be to have finally gotten all five of your kids down in your one-room apartment when suddenly you hear a banging on the door and someone yelling for bread.

Third, this doesn’t seem to be an emergency. Guests arriving in the middle of the night would last until morning without their Pop-Tarts. So not only is this guy being obnoxious, but he’s also doing it without (it seems) a legitimate reason.

What’s Jesus’ conclusion from this little story? The neighbor will give him the bread, not because he’s a friend (because at this point he probably isn’t anymore) but simply because he can’t stand the incessant knocking. The man gets what he needs, not because of the giver’s love but because of his own boldness and persistence.

In case we missed it, Jesus doubles down on the analogy by telling us to keep on knocking. The point is clear enough: Knock, and if no one comes to the door, keep knocking! Let them know it’s no use—the lights being off don’t fool you. You know they’re home, and you’re not going away, because you are just one of those kind of people. So they might as well get up and answer.

The point here, while straightforward, doesn’t immediately solve our problem. In fact, it introduces other ones. Does Jesus really mean to say that the best way to get something from God is to annoy him to death? And if God responds, it won’t be because he loves you but because he’s tired of you pounding on his door? This is Jesus’ answer to the problem of unanswered prayer?

One of the things I love most about Jesus is that while he doesn’t always give us what we expect, he always gives us what we need. That is never more relevant than in this peculiar parable, which gives us four important truths about the way Jesus invites us to pray.

Come back tomorrow for lesson 1: Pray desperately.