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Help! I Can’t Pray!

Really, now! Have you ever tried it?

Is that a way to answer such a serious call for help? It may be a little shocking to some but it is a method I learned from one of our pioneer pastors, long since in glory, who would ask this of people who said they couldn’t believe. “Have you ever tried it?”

“Have you ever tried it?”

The complaint, “I can’t pray”, may be born out of several grounds. Assuming this is a genuine concern and is reflective of a state of mind which obstructs prayer, we must look for causes. Let’s consider a few.

Were you able to pray before this?

If so, what has happened that you cannot now? Have you slackened off in spiritual “exercises”? I think now in terms of “exercise” as we do with physical activity: regular and repetitive efforts to perform a certain task. Prayer is not something to do only when we feel really “moved” to do so – in times of great need or exuberant joy; in times of sickness or grief. No, prayer is to be exercised – a regular spiritual event, even as we have such regular physical events to benefit our bodies.

Are you “at war” with God?

What a statement! Who would dare to be at war with God? Well, you and I do. Each time we sin it is an act of war against God. Sin is disobedience to His Law; pushing God out of the way; perhaps, at best, trivializing Him to be some flag of identity: we are “Christian” after all. But do we really love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength? And do we verify that by loving our neighbour as ourself? Whenever we sin, we plug the line of communication with the Lord. The result: prayer dries up.

Unconfessed sin is perhaps the greatest obstacle to prayer

You know how that goes: you have sinned—again. Perhaps it is the same (kind of) sin which you have confessed before. Perhaps you have been really hit with waves of guilt. You confessed. You even promised never to do, say or think this again. But you do and you have done many times. And now you are too embarrassed to come to the Lord because you know you are guilty and you’re quite convinced you won’t be able to walk in His ways on your own – so, you quit speaking to God. The details may vary from person to person but you know this is hitting close to home.


Perhaps it is not “sin” at all—at least, not “sin” in the sense of what we call “bad” things. Maybe you have kept the 2nd table of the Law very carefully. Are you a bit like the rich young man of Luke 18? He thought he’d kept it all—but he missed the heart of it. Smug and satisfied, he was a godly person, but his inability to surrender his god, wealth, proved the great error of his life.

You do not want to pray

Above, I referred to lack of prayer being a “genuine concern”, but I may not bypass what maybe the chief cause in our society, thus, outside the church. “I can’t pray (and don’t want to) because if this is God, I want no part of Him”. And such see a cruel God who “spitefully slaps illnesses on little children; who wickedly allows millions to go to hell; who coldly has refused to answer my requests”, and so on. Telling them to believe and pray will seldom do any good but showing them in practice and in word and in a non-confrontational way something of the love of God may be used by the Holy Spirit to bring them to a different insight.

Turn to the Bible

We turn to the Bible. In Matthew 6 we read how the Lord instructed his disciples (in the Sermon on the Mount) in the heavenly art of prayer, in sharp contrast with the public and rather showy prayers of the “hypocrites”; He gave them what the Church has called, “the Lord’s Prayer”. This is repeated in Luke 11. Clearly, He gave this as a model, a template, for our prayers. This does not mean we must always recite it, word for word (although it may be done at certain times) but it is to lead, to instruct us in how we should build our own prayers. Follow the pattern of adoration, do tell God how great, how majestic, how powerful He is—not in throwing out some shop-worn and inflated terms which are also used in describing anything which appeals to us—but in using Scriptural terms with which we have become familiar through reading the many prayers in the Bible, especially in the Psalms.

Turn to Jesus

Always pray “in the name of Jesus”—not as a closing formula, signalling that we are nearing the end of our prayers—but as the sure pleading ground before God who has said He will hear us for the sake of His Son. Think of it this way: in prayer, we enter the throne room of God. His majesty is dazzling (think of Moses in the cleft of the rock, Exodus 33:22 and Isaiah in his vision, Isaiah 6) and then see the Lord Jesus Christ going in before you, speaking on your behalf, shielding you, dishevelled, dirty and tawdry in your rags, from this overpowering majesty and glory. He prays for us! Also, when we cannot!

Just try it!

Just one more thought: our Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 45, tells us prayer is necessary “because it is the chief part of thankfulness and … God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to them who ask them of him …” You can’t pray? Try it! Ask Him!

To read more on our series called, “Help!” you can also click the tag “Help!” below.


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