Prayer is Not Enough
O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? (Psalm 80:4).
For me, and I suspect for many of us, prayer can be among the biggest battles we encounter as a Christian. I have heard, and believe, that one can tell more from a man’s prayer life than just about anything else. We can have all sorts of reasons why we might do this or that, but secret prayer shows us who we really are before God.
Which is why the question of Psalm 80 quoted above is so arresting. Given that it is often so difficult to pray, and given how repeatedly the Lord calls His people to pray, how then might the Lord be angry with his people’s prayers?
Because prayer is not enough.
There are many reasons why this is the case. Some pray even as they oppress their neighbors and workers (Isaiah 58). Some pray that they might be seen and praised (Matthew 6:5-14). Some pray without thankful hearts and don’t do what they know they should (Psalm 50:14-15). James is very direct:
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God.
We can pray for all kinds of things, and from all kinds of motives. But what of humility? Of submission?
Perhaps this is why when Jesus taught us to pray, he did not say be sincere in your prayers, or lengthy or learned or eloquent. Rather, He gave us a specific prayer. It begins like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-10). Before Jesus calls us to pray for our daily needs, for forgiveness and deliverance from temptation and evil, he calls us to remember that God is our Father, and to pray for the glory of his name, the doing of his will, and the coming of His kingdom. Not only do these petitions concern the glory of God, but are also the very petitions that concern our own good. By beginning in this way, it orders the desires of our heart, and by God’s grace enables us to pray as we ought. In effect, Jesus’ prayer reminds us that true prayer comes from a heart surrendered to God, trusting that His glory is our good, and reminds God of our need to be truly surrendered to Him. This is the humility of which James speaks above, and the submission that he calls for. This is the foundation for prayer in which the Lord delights.
Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).