A pastor and friend of mine, Jack Miller, once said he could tell a great deal about a person’s relationship with God by listening to him or her pray. “You can tell if a man or woman is really on speaking terms with God,” he said. My first response was to make a mental note never to pray aloud near Jack again.
I laughed because I recognized myself in Keller’s response! Prayer is, by all means, the lifeblood of Christian faith. We preachers frequently have to attend continuing education courses in order to keep up our credentials (we’re professionals, after all!). The theme of most of these classes and seminars is church growth—and how we need more of it. Some expert will share, for example, the “Eight Things Every Church Leader Must Do to Ensure Church Growth.” What they never say, however (and I mean, literally never, ever, ever) is that the number one most important thing that we pastors ought to do to facilitate church growth—not to mention actually getting people saved, not to mention preventing the devil from utterly ruining our ministry and lives—is to spend more time with God in prayer. Keller quotes a 17th-century theologian named John Owen who would rightly perceive the shallowness of our approach to church growth with the following words:
A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.
I feel very convicted. When I preached on the binding of Isaac a few months ago, I shared a personal anecdote in which I said that God showed me that I needed to sacrifice my personal and worldly definition of ministry success on the altar. “Just let me be faithful to God, and let the chips fall where they may.” This faithfulness begins with prayer. When we attempt to make it a priority in our lives, however, we find out something very obvious: Prayer is hard. This is as it should be. Keller writes:
I can think of nothing great that is also easy. Prayer must be, then, one of the hardest things in the world. To admit that prayer is very hard, however, can be encouraging. If you struggle greatly in this, you are not alone.
But the struggle is worth it, as far as I can tell. Keller admits that he only made prayer a priority relatively late in his life and ministry—some time around the time that he was diagnosed with cancer. He found, like so many of us pastors, that preaching is easier than praying. He said his wife, Kathy, said something that helped turn him around and motivated him to pray with his wife every evening.
Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.
Prayer is life-saving medicine for the lethal condition of human sin.
1. Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 23-4.
2. Ibid., 22.
3. Ibid., 24.