One of my all-time favorite books on prayer is Ole Hallesby’s 1931 classic, simply titled Prayer. He begins by defining prayer as the combination of two attitudes: helplessness and faith. He goes on to describe why prayer is so hard:
At conversion we were led into a life of earnest, diligent prayer. Our seasons of prayer were the happiest time of the day. But after a longer or a shorter period of time, we began to encounter difficulties in our prayer life. Prayer became a burden, and effort. And the more an effort prayer becomes, the more easily it is neglected.
But acquiring proficiency in prayer is the same as acquiring proficiency in the use of any instrumentality. It is hard to use as long as we use it wrongly. And its effectiveness is correspondingly low. I can imagine someone taking hold of a shovel and beginning to use it as best he or she knows how, but upside down. After working a while I can imagine hearing the person say, “It is hard work to use a shovel, and I cannot accomplish a great deal with it either.” But if a friend shows them how it should be used, after trying again for a while, he or she will exclaim, “How easy it is to use a shovel, and how much one can do with it!”
Similarly, if we pray contrary to the very idea and essence of what prayer is, our prayer life will be burdensome and fruitless. But if we can discover and follow the laws which govern prayer, which laws God Himself gave us when He gave us prayer, our prayer life will be sound and normal. And it will bear such fruit as will be a constant incentive to more prayer.
The common mistake people make when praying that makes it harder than it needs to be is that we think that we must help God to some extent to fulfill our prayer. If nothing more, we at least think that we ought to suggest to God how He should go about giving us the answer. Consider this example: we are praying for two people might be awakened and converted. It is easy to pray for one of them, but not the other. This is because the first person is by nature, experience and temperament such that we think it is comparatively easy for that person to be converted. In other words, we see how God might fulfill our prayers. But the other person is such that we cannot understand how God could answer our prayer. We should disregard the question as to whether the fulfillment of our prayer is hard or easy for God.
Consider how Mary shows herself to be a tried and true woman of prayer at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). First, having learned of a need she brings it to the right place: she goes to Jesus. Next, notice what she says to Jesus. Just these few, simple words: “They have no wine.” Note here what prayer is: To pray is to tell Jesus what we lack. Intercession is to tell Jesus what we see that others lack. Finally, she did nothing mre. She knew that she did not have to help Him either by suggestion what He should do. She knew also that she did not have to persuade Him to give these friends a helping hand. No one is so willing to help as He is!
To most of us prayer is burdensome because we have not learned that prayer consists in tell Jesus what we or others lack. We do not think that that is enough. So we rise from prayer many times with heavy hearts. “Will God heed this prayer of mine? And how will He do it? It seems so impossible.” Then we go one living in a state of suspense, looking intently for the answer to our prayers. And when the answer is not forthcoming at once, we think that we must do something in addition to that which we have already done before God can hear us. Just what this something is, we are not certain of in our own minds. And this uncertainty causes that inner anxiety and worry which makes prayer so painful. Especially is this the case if we or some of our dear ones are in great distress and it is imperative that our prayers be heard.
All this is changed when we, like the mother of Jesus, learn to know Him so well that we feel safe when we have left our difficulties with Him. As we learn to know Jesus in this way better and better, our prayers become quiet, confidential and blessed conversations versations with Him, our Best Friend, about the things that are on our minds, whether it be our own needs or the needs of others. Instead of our former anxiety and worry we will now often be able to experience a certain childlike inquisitiveness, having left the matter in the hands of Jesus. We will say to ourselves, “It will be interesting now to see how He solves this difficulty.”
Another way we think he must help God fulfill our prayer is that we must be spiritually fit to pray. But it is not necessary for us when we pray to work ourselves up to a state of spirituality which we feel that we lack. Nor do we need to put forth any effort to make what little faith we have seem as great as possible. And we do not need to fan the cold embers in our hearts in order to make our waning zeal flare up again. It is not necessary for us to go through such spiritual gymnastics when we pray. We need do but one thing: tell God about our condition, about our faith, our concern, and our worldly and prayer-weary weary heart; and then pray in the name of Jesus.
This means to say to God, “I do not have a right to pray because I do not have a truly prayerful heart. Much less do I have any right to receive what I ask for. Everything which Thou seest in my heart, O Lord, is of such a nature that it must close Thy heart to me and all my supplications. But hear me, not for my sake, nor for the sake of my prayer, and not even because of my distress, for it is a result of my own sinfulness. But hear me for Jesus’ sake.”
A final way we think we must help God fulfill our prayer is try to convince God to be interested in us, good to us, and kindly disposed toward us, so as to give us what we ask of Him. This is the heathen within us, lifting its head. Among the heathen, prayer is looked upon as a means whereby someone can win the favor of the gods and move them to give away some of their divine surplus. We feel that there is something God must see in us before He can answer our prayer. We think that He must find an earnest, urgent, burning desire within us in the event that we are praying for something for ourselves. And if we are interceding ceding on behalf of others, we think that He must find a hearty and spiritual concern for them in our prayers if He is to hear us. But what we lack in fervency, solicitude, love and faith are not the things which prevent us from being heard and answered when we pray. These things merely reveal our helplessness. And helplessness is, as we have seen above, fundamental to prayer.
When the Spirit shows us the hardness, the lasiness, and the indifference of our hearts toward prayer, we now become anxious and confused no longer. Instead, they become come added incentives to prayer, that is, the opening of our heart’s door to give Jesus access to all our distress and all our helplessness. A new and wonderful thing now occurs. Our seasons of prayer become real hours of rest to our weary souls. They become quiet hours, hours in which we lie at the feet of Jesus and point to all those things which we lack and which make our hearts tired and weary. When our prayer chamber thus becomes a resting place, then we begin to long for it and to look forward to it with joy and anticipation from one prayer session to the next.