Helplessness: the foundation of prayer

My prayer life sucks! There, I admitted it. I don’t pray nearly enough. I even forget to pray for the people who I say I’m going to pray for. Some days I’ll be walking along and remember that I told somebody I was going to pray for them, so I kind of think about their situation for a moment and say “Lord, have mercy,” in my head, which doesn’t seem like it “counts” because I didn’t sit down and talk to God out loud. Anyway, I started doing this small group on prayer and the book we’re reading called Prayer by Ole Hallesby is awesome so far.

Hallesby says that the foundation of prayer is helplessness “for it is only when we are helpless that we open our hearts to Jesus and let Him help us in our distress, according to His grace and mercy.” I don’t know about you but that’s very comforting to me. In other words, prayer doesn’t need to be a beautiful soliloquy in which we know exactly what to say and use all action verbs in our sentences. I suppose people can be eloquent in their prayers; I must at least try to be as a pastor; but a prayer’s efficacy is not measured by its eloquence.

The first chapter of Hallesby’s book is based on his interpretation of Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and lets me in, I will enter and will sup with him and he with me.” Based on this verse, Hallesby says, “It is not our prayer that moves the Lord Jesus; it is Jesus who moves us to pray.” That sentence is perhaps the most powerful sentence on prayer that I’ve read so far. I can’t tell you how much anguish I’ve gone through trying to prove my sincerity to God when I’m talking to Him, thinking that I can motivate Him to answer my prayer if I pray “with all my heart.” If the fact that I pray means that Christ has moved within me, then my prayer already answers the question of whether God has heard it. Hallesby quotes Isaiah 65:24: “Before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.”

Hallesby goes on to say that helplessness alone is inadequate. Helplessness without faith is despair. So it is only “helplessness united with faith [that] produces prayer.” But Hallesby explains that faith doesn’t mean that we have no doubt. To Hallesby, “we have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus.” Hallesby explains that there is a difference between doubt and unbelief:

Unbelief is something very different from doubt. Unbelief is an attribute of the will and consists in the refusal to believe, that is, refusal to see one’s own need, acknowledged one’s helplessness, go to Jesus and speak candidly and confidently with Him about one’s sin and distress. Doubt, on the other hand, is anguish, a pain, a weakness, which at times affects our faith. We could therefore call it faith-distress, faith-anguish, faith-suffering, faith-tribulation.

So effective prayer is simply acknowledging our helplessness without God and going to God with our need. It is not about assuming that we will get what we pray for if we just “believe hard enough” that it’s going to happen. That’s a completely secular way of thinking called the power of positive thinking that has nothing to do with having a relationship to God.

Bottom line is this: ask God for help when you have needs, even if you’re not 100% sure that He will do what you ask Him to do. If you’re anguished and unsure of yourself, that means you’re really experiencing prayer even if it doesn’t feel like God is there. It’s when you talk to God from a place of entitlement and security that you should be worried about whether you’re really praying or not. So be helpless, and go to Jesus for help.

P.S. If you’re from Burke United Methodist Church, get in touch with me if you’d like to jump into our prayer small group next week. You still have time to catch up with the reading at this point. We meet Tuesday mornings at 10:15. Peace.


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