Prayer lies at the heart of our relationship with God. Prayer preaches that God is God and we are weak and needy creatures. And yet how many Christians persist in the sin of prayerlessness? We desire to pray, yet prayerlessness lies close at hand. We delight in prayerfulness, in our inner being, but we see in our members prayerlessness waging war against that inner desire, leaving us living like little gods pursuing godliness without depending on the power of God. Although Jesus tells us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1), we get discouraged regularly (perhaps because of our lack of prayer).
In my own struggles to pray, I have found it helpful to think more clearly about why prayerlessness is such a serious sin — and how God puts our prayerlessness to death. My mind goes back to a story in 1 Samuel 12, where Israel rejects God’s rule, and rules out crying to God for themselves, asking Samuel to pray for them (1 Samuel 12:19).
First, Samuel encourages God’s people not to fear, even though they have done “all this evil” (1 Samuel 12:20). “The Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself” (1 Samuel 12:22). Despite their grievous sin, God will not forsake them, and Samuel resolves to pray for them.
Second, Samuel pledges: “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way” (1 Samuel 12:23). I find Samuel’s words fascinating because, at this point in redemptive history, God has not yet commanded prayer. He has not enshrined into the law, “You must devote yourself to prayer.” Yet Samuel sees prayerlessness as a sin: “Far be it from me that I should sin by ceasing to pray for you.” Why? Consider four compelling reasons for Samuel’s conviction.
According to Samuel, Israel’s history has been a story of God crowning Israel’s cries with deliverance. God saved Israel when they cried to him in slavery, gave them the land (1 Samuel 12:8), and has been their help till date (1 Samuel 7:12). In suffering for sins, Israel has cried to God often, and God has saved them (1 Samuel 12:8, 10–11).
Samuel does not see prayerlessness as sin because the law commands prayer, but because God’s relationship with his redeemed people compels prayer. How can he not depend on God for Israel’s future when Israel’s past has been a story of humiliation and humble dependence on God? God has been her help in ages past, and only God will help her now.
Like Israel, our salvation begins with a cry of faith to God for deliverance. Israel cried out to God in their slavery to Egypt, and we cried out to God in our slavery to sin. We are God’s people today because he heard our cry. If our story has been one of crying to God for help and experiencing his deliverance, what future do we have but one of crying to God for help? Prayerlessness is sin because it ignores God’s story and God’s design for his people. It is God’s design that we depend on him and cry out to him so that he can save us again and again and again. God’s story is one of crowning our cries with salvation, and the future will not be different. God will crown your prayerful cries with salvation. Only be sure to cry.
Because God has promised, “I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5), Samuel trusts that “the Lord will not forsake his people” (1 Samuel 12:22). This promise motivates Samuel to pray. Indeed, without God’s promises, we would have no basis for prayer. The promises of God powered David’s prayer. David found courage to pray because God promised to work (2 Samuel 7:27). So did Daniel (Daniel 9:1–4), and the early church (Acts 4:23–30), to list a few.
What is prayer, then? Prayer is asking God to do what he has committed himself to do. Prayer is not a human attempt to overcome God’s reluctance to work for the good of his people. Rather, biblical prayers are powered by God’s commitment and promise to work. God’s promises for his people motivate prayer. Prayer voices our confidence in God who has promised to do us good.
So, what is prayerlessness? It is a failure to trust God and his promises. Samuel knew that such prayerlessness would be a gross sin. How can you not trust the promises of the God who has been so faithful, and voice that trust in prayers?
Samuel knows that God could only preserve Israel after they reject his kingship “for his great name’s sake” (1 Samuel 12:22). So, he seeks God’s glory by praying that God would not forsake Israel. God’s commitment to glorify himself makes prayerlessness sinful. God says he will not abandon his people “for his great name’s sake” (1 Samuel 12:22). Samuel intercedes for Israel because God is passionate about his glory, and so is Samuel.
When we pray, we align our passions, desires, and will with God’s. If God has committed himself to save his people for his glory, then it becomes sinful for his servants to not seek his glory in the salvation of his people through prayer. Prayerlessness, then, is a failure to seek God’s glory. Prayerlessness betrays not only our lack of love for God’s people, but also our lack of love for the God who spreads his fame through the salvation and preservation of his humble and crying people.
Unlike Samuel, we have received commandments from God to pray (Romans 12:12; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; James 5:13). When we fail to pray, we are breaking God’s command. But, according to the New Testament, we find the power to keep God’s commandments in the gospel. So, prayerlessness shows that we are not grasping the gospel.
At the cross of Christ, God makes a people for himself at the cost of his only Son’s life. At the cross, God displays his commitment to never forsake his people. At the cross, God works to save and preserve a people for his name’s sake. In the cross, we find God’s Yes to all his covenant promises (2 Corinthians 1:20). His covenant love, his faithfulness, and his commitment to save for his own glory revealed at the cross make prayer possible and render prayerlessness sinful.
Putting Prayerlessness to Death
Knowing that something is a sin does not give us the power to kill it. We need gospel power. The cure for our prayerless hearts is not more commands to pray but the healing balm of the gospel. The cross exposes our sinful pride, our lack of dependence on God. At the cross, we know that we could never pray enough to earn God’s favor. At the cross, we know that we could never merit God’s mercy. At the cross, we know that no good work is good enough for our good God. We are humbled at the cross, and that humility is the fuel for prayer.
Humbled by the God who saved us when we could not possibly save ourselves, we prayerfully depend on him. And the God who saved us from condemnation is the same God we need to save us from sin’s power day after day. The cross that saved us is the same cross we need to cling to day after day. Understanding the gospel destroys the pride of prayerlessness.
Jesus died for our prayerlessness, and he also sets the example for how to pray. Jesus prayed without ceasing on earth, and he continues to intercede for us in heaven (Hebrews 7:25). Far be it from Jesus, the new and better Samuel, to sin against his Father by failing to intercede for the church, the new-covenant people of God. As Charles Wesley sang,
Five bleeding wounds he bears,
Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers;
They strongly plead for me:
“Forgive him, O, forgive,” they cry,
“Forgive him, O, forgive,” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
The scars from the cross plead for us right now before the throne of God. When we pray, we join the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord in his passion to see God keep the people he made at the cross for his name’s sake. There are few privileges on earth so great as being able to pray with our Savior. In the power of the gospel, we follow Jesus’s example.
When Prayerfulness Goes Wrong
As we labor to join Jesus in prayer, however, we should beware of a type of prayerfulness that is still sin against God. After Jesus uses the parable of the persistent widow to teach us to pray without losing heart (Luke 18:1), he tells another parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee who both go up to the temple to pray.
The tax collector prays and confesses his neediness, simply pleading, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). At the same time, a prayerful “saint” — who has done far more good works than the tax collector — stands confidently before God and recounts his qualifications for acceptance: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11–12). This Pharisee is not prayerless like other sinners. He is so prayerful, in fact, he intensifies his prayers with fasting. But his prayers are corrupt for two reasons.
First, in his mind, his prayers are the grounds for God’s acceptance of him. He lists all that he has done for God, but he asks nothing of God. He prays as though God needs his good works but he does not need God’s gracious work at the cross.
Second, his prayers also become the grounds for competition with others. He compares his faithful and intensified prayers with others and sees that others fall far short. His prayerfulness becomes his own condemnation because it is the ground for condemning others. He leaves his place of prayer feeling good, but not because he enjoyed God, received mercy from God, or rested in God’s work of salvation. Rather, he feels good because he prayed longer, more regularly, and more passionately than others. The perceived prayerlessness of others boosts his pride before God, but God rejects him and his intense prayers (Luke 18:14).
God designed prayer not for self-justification or competition, but for humiliation. Genuine prayer kills our pride and promotes his praise. Pray regularly, earnestly, and faithfully, but never put your confidence in your prayerfulness or compete with others through them.
Far Be It from Us
Far be it from us that we should sin against God by prayerlessness, and far be it from us that we should sin against God by trusting in our prayerfulness. The cross makes humble, dependent prayer possible and necessary, and the cross is our only merit before God.
Let the cross of Christ kill your prayerlessness and prideful prayerfulness. Let the cross kindle prayer that trusts in Christ’s sufficiency and pleads for God’s mercy. When you struggle to pray, do not look to yourself. Do not expect guilt or better planning or stronger resolve to ultimately transform the way you pray. Look to Jesus. The gospel is the cure for our prayerlessness. The gospel purges our guilt of prayerlessness, proves our need for God’s grace, grounds our hope for answered prayers, powers our resolves to pray, promotes our dependence on God in prayer, and protects us from boasting in our prayers.