Author’s Note: This year, I’m trying something new with reading. Alongside the usual reading I do, I wanted to spend the year with a focused study on one area of the Christian life. This year, the theme is “prayer.” At the start of the year, I gathered all of the best resources I found on prayer, set them in their own stack on my desk, and began plodding through. I thought I’d share from time to time what I’m learning along the way.
I’m nothing like Augustine’s mother.
When it comes to prayer, I feel the way that, statistically, nine out of ten Bible-believing, church-going Christians do (save Monica of Hippo) — that my prayer life is not as effective or meaningful as it should be. We all have our reasons for a stale or dying prayer life: Distracted. Fatalistic. Lazy. Intimidated.
I propose one more reason: Unconvinced.
The first book I dove into in my study of prayer was Paul Miller’s A Praying Life. And Miller wastes no time with the excuses, calling our prayerlessness what it is: “a core unbelief.”
“Unbelief” and “Pastor” are words that mix like oil and water. Before I kept reading, I stopped for a moment, marinating in that assertion that Miller seemed to aim right at me. Is this hyperbole, meant to sell a book? Or is this my Christian reality?
I used to be baffled at why Christians felt “too busy” or “not good at it” were good arguments for a lack of prayer. But I think I have figured out why we go there. It’s easy to admit busy-ness or intimidation. Admitting unbelief — well, that is another thing entirely.
I put it to myself in question form. Do you believe prayer works? I had to strip away all of the right and academic theological answers, look myself in the mirror, and figure out what my heart said.
I know that prayer works. I see it work throughout the pages of Scripture. I see it work in people’s lives. But when the rubber meets the road, I don’t pray, because apparently, I don’t believe. I don’t believe my circumstances, my troubles, my fears, my joys, my discouragements can be affected by prayer. I don’t believe that the power of God in the story of the Israelites is available for my own story.
When you believe that something works, it becomes second nature over time. When I sit in a chair at a restaurant or a classroom, I never take the time to examine its sturdiness or cautiously bend into it. I just sit down. I throw my full weight into it, expecting it to hold me up. Because I believe the chair works. What’s underneath my “too busy” or “too lazy” in prayer is my being too suspicious of the effectiveness of prayer. It’s “a core unbelief.”
“Busy,” “fatalistic,” “lazy,” and “intimidated” were not words in the prayer vocabulary of Monica of Hippo. As a mother to a prodigal son and wife to an erratic husband, prayer was all that Monica had. She had to believe it was worth her energy and time and consistency, if there was any hope of her family being converted to Christ.
Monica prayed for her son during his seventeen-year exile from Christianity. He was a degenerate, entangled in sexual promiscuity. He had adopted the Manichaean heresy (ironically enough, a system of theology that devalued the omnipotence of God). While Monica’s heart was certainly broken over her son, she did not lose it. She had likely been praying for her husband, Patricius, to come to saving faith for quite some time; she would merely add her son’s name to the list — “Augustine.”
Augustine never forgot about those prayers. In fact, much of his pre-conversion life outlined in his prayer-soaked Confessions details the prayer life of his mother:
“Day by day she bedewed the ground wherever she prayed to you for me…I can find no words to express how intensely she loved me: with far more anxious solicitude did she give birth to me in the spirit than ever she had in the flesh.”
Augustine, of course, ended up rejecting Manichaeism and went on to become of the most significant theologians in antiquity. And if that wasn’t enough, his father Patricius was converted to Christ a year before he died.
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
The first step to a life of prayer is killing the unbelief in our hearts that makes us prayerless people. Prayer is powerful, not because of our praying, but because of whose name we pray in. When we begin to believe in prayer, it will become more constant and less random, more real and less abstract. We are simply invited to believe. The great power of prayer can change things.
Most of all, us.