Prayer is not a last resort.
It’s not what we do after we read the self-help books, after we go to the specialists, or after we surf the internet. Prayer is our lifeline to God. This is why Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you” (Matthew 6:33). It’s why he said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (11:28).
So why does prayer often seem difficult? We believe that Jesus is real. We believe he is present in the Eucharist. We believe that everyone who is baptized is a “temple of God,” and that the Spirit of God lives in us (1 Corinthians 3:16). We believe that prayer is vital to our Christian lives. So why do we find it hard to pray? Why do we sometimes get distracted when we try to pray? Here are some possibilities:
Have I lost my first love? In the Book of Revelation, Jesus warns the believers in Ephesus, “I know your works, your labor, and your endurance. . . . You have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first” (2:2-4).
These words tell us that it is possible to be working very hard for the sake of the kingdom of God, and yet lose our passion for the one for whom we are laboring. The people to whom Jesus was speaking here were active members of their church, and yet they had lost sight of what was meant to be at the heart of their faith: love for Jesus.
How easy it can be to slip into a functional and duty-driven approach to our faith and allow the passion we once knew for Jesus fade away! It’s like a couple who, having been married for a number of years, have let all the necessary responsibilities of work, child-rearing, and community involvement overshadow the romance they once enjoyed with each other.
Are my priorities out of order? It may be an old adage, but it remains true: time is a statement of our priorities. Jesus told a parable about people who were invited to a banquet but failed to show up (Luke 14:16-24). One invitee chose to check on his real estate holdings instead. Another wanted to see the new yoke of oxen he had bought. And a third had just gotten married and was too absorbed in his marriage. All three allowed self-centered—even if good and necessary—interests to obscure the greatness of the invitation they had received.
Where does God’s invitation stand on our list of priorities? Jesus does not want our leftovers, our token prayers, or just our spare time. He wants us to accept his invitation and put him first. The demands and responsibilities of this world are very real, but that doesn’t mean that we can afford to put aside Jesus’ invitation.
Jesus wants to spend quality time with us every day. When we consider ourselves too busy for him, we are really saying that our relationship with him is not a top priority.
Why do I feel so dry? Dry prayer discourages us. It can lead us to question our faith, or even to question God himself. At one point in their history, it seems that the Israelites had a similar attitude. Speaking through his prophet, God complained about them: “They seek me day after day, and desire to know my ways. . . . They ask of me just judgments. . . . ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, but you take no note?’” (Isaiah 58:2-3). Like the Israelites, we can tell Jesus, “I try to avoid sin, I try to do good. I’ve been faithful to you. But you still don’t answer me.”
The problem with these Israelites—and it may be our situation as well—was that despite their participation in the external religious rituals of ancient Israel, they continued to do as they pleased (Isaiah 58:3). Perhaps, like the Israelites, our dryness in prayer comes because we are not as open to God as we like to think we are. Perhaps we have too much confidence in our plans for our lives and consequently are not all that interested in what God may be calling us to.
James said, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:3). Jesus wants us to come to him with a pure and humble heart. He wants us to tell him, “Jesus, I want what you want; I will do what you say. I do not want my ways over your ways.”
On the other hand, it might be that in dry times of prayer God is asking us to trust him more deeply. Will we give up on him is the question. But the answer is not to stop praying. On the contrary, the best thing we can do is persevere, knowing that we will find a breakthrough if we hold fast to our hope until the end.
Trust Jesus. Jesus taught us: “All that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours” (Mark 11:24). Jesus wants us to know that he will answer our prayer because he wants to guide us in every way. He is faithful, and he will do it!