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How to pray when you don’t feel like praying

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Are you motivated to pray? The word “motivation” doesn’t appear in older dictionaries since it wasn’t coined until the mid-19th century and didn’t come into common use until the 20th century. 

The question of why we act as we do gave rise to a field of psychology determined to analyze the “motivation” of personal choices. Interest in the psychology of motivation continues to the present.

What does any of this have to do with prayer? For one thing, after more than 3000 years of biblical instruction and over 100 years of psychological study, we still struggle with the motivation to pray.

We sometimes fail because we lack spiritual maturity. Other times we struggle because of unconfessed sin. We also struggle in prayer because we have a demonic enemy who hates our prayer lives. So, the question is: How do we stay motivated to pray when we don’t feel like praying? 

Faith Over Feeling

We know we should pray, but when we struggle, it isn’t how we feel that will make the difference. It is our faith, rather than our feelings, that brings us back to prayer. 

Feelings, unfortunately, can betray or mislead us. James reminds us to, “…ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7). Our feelings of doubt are like unpredictable ocean waves, leaving us with the unwanted condition of believing and doubting simultaneously. We are like a man driving a car with his foot on the gas and the brake at the same time. 

The question for us, then, is: How can we build our faith? The answer is found in Paul’s counsel to the Roman church, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Strengthening your faith may be as simple as adding more Bible reading to your daily devotional schedule. Reading Scripture with a heart open to the voice of God builds an “on ramp” for prayer. 

Once your spirit is preconditioned by the Word of God, you’ll find it much easier to pray. That’s what Jesus promised in His last formal training with His disciples. He permanently united prayer and Scripture when He said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). 

Action Over Intention 

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear offers this reminder, “You get what you repeat.” In the context of prayer, the commitment to pray consistently must override other considerations such as how we may feel at the moment. 

Why would anyone believe that waiting to pray, only when we feel like it, is more desirable than a commitment to daily prayer? Some may argue that it is better to pray when we feel most inspired to pray, rather than merely praying mechanically because prayer is on our “to do” list. That argument sounds reasonable, until we examine our options. 

A daily commitment to prayer always outperforms what we might expect from a jolt of inspiration, simply because the needed inspiration doesn’t always come. For instance, do you remember Elijah? He was an Old Testament prophet of God justifiably paraded in the New Testament as an example of the kind of praying disciple we should all strive to become (James 5: 17-18). Yet, following a major victory in prayer, the famous prayer warrior grew sullen, withdrawn, depressed, and suicidal (1 Kings 19:1-4). That severe reaction had its own unique historical context and isn’t prescriptive of what will happen to us when we pray. His depression and reluctance to pray following a victory in prayer, however, demonstrates that even those of us who have experienced incredible answers to prayer in the past can be left helplessly waiting in a cave of discouragement if we are merely hoping to feel like praying again. 

The issue, therefore, is not whether emotion is involved in prayer, since obviously it is. Instead, we must acknowledge that waiting for a feeling is a poor substitute for a commitment to daily prayer. In this regard, Paul frequently spoke about unceasing prayer which leads us to the conclusion that Paul either always felt like praying, or he was committed to prayer regardless of circumstances, including his own feelings. The latter option appears to be the most realistic and certainly offers us the most reproducible principle. In fact, we know Paul expected every believer to “pray without ceasing” since he wrote the instruction to an entire congregation (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Are we to assume that Paul had personal knowledge of the emotional well-being and spiritual maturity of every person who would read that letter for the next 2000 years? Of course not. Obviously, therefore, his call to “pray without ceasing” is an invitation to a commitment regardless of circumstances. Clearly, a commitment to prayer will always outweigh the temporary emotional condition of the person offering the prayer. 

So, on those occasions when we do not feel inspired to pray, we will always have one of two choices. We can yield to how we feel, or we can keep our commitment to pray. Which of those two options sounds most like the call of God on your life?

    About the Author

  • Kie Bowman

    Kie Bowman is senior pastor emeritus of Hyde Park Baptist Church and The Quarries Church in Austin, Texas and the SBC National Director of Prayer.

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