If there’s one universal complaint I’ve heard from Christians, one monolithic sore spot that seems to affect almost all of them, it is their inability to establish prayer habits. Even the most fervent and gung-ho of them willingly admit that their prayer lives are lacking.
But instead of stressing the real-world good of cultivating such a habit, Christians tend to try to drill down harder on the imaginary aspects of what they’re doing.
Religious people call the process of talking to their god(s) prayer. Christians almost universally believe that prayer works all kinds of miracles. Their Bible commands them to pray without ceasing. In the gospels, Jesus is often seen praying and admonishing his followers to pray.
In the modern day, Christians believe that their god actually listens to their prayers. Many even believe that he responds to them in some way: giving them comfort, answering their questions, telling them what to do next, and more. They’ve even defined different kinds of prayer:
- Praise and adoration
- Petition (asking for stuff)
- Intercession (asking for stuff still, but for someone else)
- Confession (apologizing for stuff so they don’t go to Hell)
- Thanksgiving (for the stuff they think their god did for them)
In times of great stress, Christians learn that they should pray for help and comfort. (I recently saw The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). One hostage character prayed almost the entire way through the movie. This wasn’t particularly played for laughs.)
But Christians also learn that they should pray all the rest of the time too, and to cultivate what they call a prayer life. Their leaders teach them that prayer is a sublime and fulfilling experience—a sort of red Bat-Phone call straight to Heaven.
And the problem: Christians tend to neglect prayer
Despite centuries of consistent education on this topic, Christians don’t pray much at all. A 2021 Pew Research survey found that the number of Christians claiming to pray daily fell from 58% in 2007 to 45% in 2021. Meanwhile, the number of people saying they seldom or never pray rose from 18% in 2007 to 32% in 2021. Those are some serious shifts!
I use the word “claiming” up there on purpose. I’m pretty sure that Christians not only vastly inflate how much prayer they do, but that they also count any kind of prayer as prayer. That means quick blessings over their meals, ritualistic requests for divine protection before they start driving anywhere, or the brief little prayers they say over social media entreaties. These are simple magical invocations, no different from Wiccans saying “so mote it be.” And they’re certainly not what Christian leaders mean when they talk about cultivating a prayer life.
I can absolutely assure you that 45% of Americans are not actually getting on their knees in their war room to pray for hours on end for Republicans to win the next election and Aunt Nancy’s Stage IV cancer to go into spontaneous remission—much less to tell Jesus for hours at a time how wonderful he is.
Even in the most fervent evangelical circles, it’s always perfectly safe to lament one’s neglect of prayer. Usually, this confession prompts everyone listening to nod along in chagrined silence.
The stakes for neglecting prayer
One evangelical site, The Gospel Coalition (TGC), understands exactly what the stakes are here:
It’s shameful but true. Christians have long struggled to exercise their most astounding privilege: permission to approach the throne of grace and talk to God, communicating with the One who makes and rules the world, who creates and redeems, who loves with an everlasting love that has overcome the power of sin, death, and the Devil. Though such a privilege takes our breath away when rightly understood, it is all-too-often neglected, taken for granted, and performed as if what we profess about God isn’t true.The Gospel Coalition
That last bit is the most telling: “performed as if what we profess about God isn’t true.”
Whatever Christians say they believe about prayer, their actual behavior reveals the truth. They’re well aware that prayer doesn’t actually spark miracles, get them tangible help in their lives, or offer them any gods standing by to take their calls—much less waiting on pins and needles to respond to them.
But their writer shoots himself in the foot by making a testable truth claim about the results of regular long-form prayer:
Imagine what would happen if we inched our way closer to prayer without ceasing. Imagine if we cultivated the faith, godly discipline, and habit of communicating with God as if he really were with us all the time, ruling our lives and our world in the way Scripture says.The Gospel Coalition
If only. But he’s right about one thing:
We must imagine this result, because there really aren’t any real-world examples he can point out to us.
Why Christians spend so little time on prayer, according to Christians
There’s no shortage of guesses in the Christ-o-sphere about why Christians have such a problem with prayer. One pastor begins his list of guesses with the usual confession:
Over the years I have been amazed at the paltry desire I’ve felt to pray. I am especially aware of this aversion just prior to the times that I’ve specifically set aside to pray, whether in private or with others.Daniel Henderson
His guesses about why this is the case include demons and Bad Christians™, of course:
- “The independence of the flesh.” (In Christianese, the flesh means the material world, our bodies, and our very human desires and motivations.)
- “The relentless attack of the enemy.” (In Christianese, the enemy always means demons. They are—as Umberto Eco once defined fascism so well—both enormously powerful and ridiculously weak.)
- “The busyness of our modern lives.” (He name-drops Charles Spurgeon, who gaslit evangelicals for decades to come by defining prayer as “a saving of time.”)
- “The unpleasant memory of previous experiences.” (He goes on to explain that anyone who turns Christians off to prayer meetings is just a Bad Christian™ who has forgotten what Original First-Century Christianity is all about.)
Overall, his guesses can be found repeated all throughout the Christ-o-sphere. TGC adds an interesting new guess in their own post: “Surely,” he asserts, “this has a great deal to do with our lack of understanding about the nature of prayer.” (Even his own cited sources don’t come close to supporting that guess!)
The solution: Reframing prayer as exciting!
As you might have noticed already, Christians have a couple of different strategies for dealing with this lack of prayer in their ranks. TGC’s writer thought that the solution was simply (re-)telling Christians what he thinks the Bible says about prayer.
(Here, I’ll note only this: My last real act as a Christian, besides one last agonized prayer, was studying what the Bible says about prayer. That’s when I finally understood that it looks nothing like how Christians describe it, and nothing like reality either. Just like that, one of the most important taps feeding my faith pool turned off.)
But most Christians go another route. They try to make prayer sound incredibly exciting, rewarding, and magically effective. In other words, they reframe prayer. We’ve already seen one such attempt in the quotes I’ve offered above.
There’s nothing wrong with reframing, as long as the results are still true and accurate. It can be a healthy way to get past a problem. Sometimes people just need another way to look at a situation. When it’s done to manipulate, though, and it describes something that isn’t true or accurate, then there’s a lot wrong with it. Then, it becomes gaslighting.
In this case, Christians already know that prayer is boring, unrewarding, and the opposite of effective. They’ve done enough prayer to know! They’ve watched themselves do it!
Reframing in action
In 2019, a Calvinist evangelical, Derek Rishmawy, tried hard to reframe prayer:
There are many reasons I don’t pray: distraction, busyness, or the sense that I should be doing something. These are all terrible, of course, but I think the saddest reason is simply boredom. If you’ve grown up in church or simply acclimatized to the secular air we breathe, prayer can appear as small potatoes. It’s something good you know you’re supposed to do because God, like your Great Aunt Suzy, would like you to call more often. But there is little urgency or anticipation.
How much would change, I wonder, if we looked to the story of Moses and the burning bush as our paradigm for prayer?Derek Rishmawy, Christianity Today
He ends with a crescendo of reframed enthusiasm:
Certainly, there is no place for lethargy or boredom. To pray is to enter the Temple, the high and exalted place, where the Holy One dwells in majestic light (Isa. 57:15). It is to call on the name of Yahweh, the fear of Israel (Isa. 8:13).
Considering the One we are praying to, there should be an exhilarating rush of adrenaline and a quickening of the pulse when we take God’s name on our lips. [. . .] Prayer is nothing less than an intimate encounter with the voice from the Flame.Derek Rishmawy, Christianity Today
Impressive, eh? But I wonder how well this reframing attempt worked for him. Does he still find it difficult to find time to pray, even after positioning prayer in this impossibly grandiose way? I bet he does, because back in my Pentecostal days decades ago, my crowd did the exact same thing. And yet we still had trouble finding time to pray.
When the reframing attempt draws a picture that the target knows isn’t true, then it becomes dishonest. The Bible can talk about burning bushes all it wants. Any Christian who’s done more than a few prayer sessions knows perfectly well that it doesn’t feel even a little like “an intimate encounter with the voice from the Flame.” That Bible story describes an encounter that looks like the polar opposite of prayer.
Christians’ dishonest reframing attempts might even backfire by making their targets curious, as I once was, about what the Bible really says about prayer.
When rubber meets the road, Christians vote with their time
We make time for that which is important to us. If we say we know something is terribly important, but we don’t make time for it, that should tip us off about our real priorities.
Sure, we do this all the time with stuff we know is actually good for us. Right now, gym members are likely still dealing with the “resolutioners” who flood their facilities every January. In a few more weeks, most of those folks will be gone.
Exercise is important. It’s one of the best ways humans have to stay happy, healthy, and long-lived. In the moment of exercising, our bodies release all kinds of feel-good chemicals. We’re meant to be active. Our bodies suffer greatly when we’re not. And yet somehow our busy lives get in the way of doing the thing.
The difference between exercise and prayer should be obvious, however. One is a proven-effective activity with observable results. The other has never been shown to do anything that Christians frequently claim it does.
One activity similar to prayer, meditation, appears to have real benefits for those practicing it. Practiced in a similar way, prayer might accomplish similar benefits. But I doubt Christians would ever officially adopt that style of prayer, even if they evolve singly, Christian by Christian, informal redefinitions that inch closer to the truth of the matter (as I also did).
By now, Christians have developed a cultural view of prayer that is both impossibly lofty and completely removed from even their own reality. Nothing else will please most of them. So dishonest reframing it is and shall be forevermore!
Christians will keep dishonestly reframing prayer to try to motivate themselves to do it more often, and they will still keep having trouble finding time to pray. Truly, there’s nothing new under the sun.