My daughter just turned two, and for her birthday, my wife and I got her a balance bike, a small two-wheeled red bike without pedals that require her to develop her balance as she scoots around slowly with her feet on the ground. When she tore open the gold and brown wrapping paper to reveal her new toy, she called it a motorcycle. That made me smile. I remembered my first bike, the skinned knees, the wind in my face as I pedaled faster and faster, and the freedom of being able to ride to my friend’s house down the block. As I saw my daughter’s amazement over her bike, I felt the same joys I had with my own first bike and a new-found joy as a father who gives gifts.
This reminds me that my feelings have everything to do with the reality I am experiencing or the memories I am recalling. Certain events and memories are sure to affect my feelings. Prayer can be like this.
I can honestly say that sometimes I didn’t pray because I didn’t feel like it, and other times I didn’t pray because I didn’t think prayer or God would do any good. I doubt. I lose hope. Often my prayer life is hindered because of my emotional state and my momentary delusions about reality—I imagine God as a monster and Christianity a farce. I don’t think I’m unique. I have met others who admit the same; in fact, the Protestant reformer and pastor, Martin Luther said,
I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow. (Luther’s Works, Vol. 24, 62)
The book of Psalms is what first helped Martin Luther come to understand God’s love, and here I want to offer you what has helped me, a pattern I first recognized in Psalm 103. Psalm 103 follows the laments of Psalm 102; in Psalm 103 king David engages in some self-talk, working through his feelings so that he can move from lament to worship. He models 4 practices that we can embrace to help us pray when we don’t feel like it.
1. Remember what God has done.
David reminds himself of all that God has done. He recalls that God delivered his people from Egyptian slavery, that God forgave, healed, and brought his people to a land that was rich in resources (Psalm 103:2–8).
Like David, when you don’t feel like praying, it’s important to remind yourself of what God has done in the past. This means above all looking back to what Jesus Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection. This means remembering how much God has done to save you and establish a loving relationship with you. It means reflecting upon your life in view of what God has already done for you through the work of Jesus Christ. It means considering what God has done in your past, displaying the same faithfulness he has shown through the work of Jesus. It means remembering answered prayer. It means remembering how God has shown his faithfulness in all the dark times and how God has given you so many good times, times that reflect his love and mercy.
2. Hope in what God has promised.
David remembers that God is merciful and gracious. He reminds himself that God has promised to take the side of the oppressed. He remembers that God has promised to forgive sins, to love, to bring his people to the land of Israel, the land that David had enjoyed throughout his life (Psalm 103:7–12). David reflects upon what God has done in the past for his people and what God has done in his own life, and David connects God’s past faithfulness to God’s promise. He uses the past as fuel for hope. God had promised to make Abraham a great nation (see Genesis 12 and 15); God had promised to be Israel’s savior. God had shown himself faithful to save Israel even when they were unfaithful (see the entire book of Judges).
Like David, when you don’t feel like praying, when doubts arise with in your heart, when challenges overtake you, when life hurts, you need to remember what God has promised. You need to remember what God has done in Jesus; you need to remember what God has said he would do in the future. You need to see our present challenges in light of the future. Look through the pain to recognize the glimmer of hope.
3. Trust the God who cares.
David compares God to a father who loves his children. He recognizes his weakness, that his life is like grass that fades in the summer heat. He believes that God is faithful to bring about his promise. He trusts that God is not some distant deity who doesn’t care about his people. He embraces the fact that God is a loving father actively involved in the lives of his children (Psalm 103:13–19).
Like David, your faith grows stronger through an honest estimation of your life and circumstances. When you consider your frailty and remember what God has does in the work of Jesus Christ, your faith has a solid foundation. Faith isn’t a blind leap in the dark. It is a firm trust in a God who cares, a God who has shown himself faithful, a God who knows your needs.
4. Enjoy the God who saves.
David ends his psalm with a call to praise (Psalm 103:20–22). Here, David experiences the reorienting work, remembering what God has accomplished in history. His praise arises from remembering the truth about what God has done, and his call for all of creation to praise captures the cosmic scope of God’s glorious work. The New Testament tells us that God’s saving work is ultimately for all of creation (Rom. 8:19–23; Rev. 21:5).
Like David, our praise arises out of remembering what God has done in light of what God has promised to do. When we consider that God has stooped down in Jesus Christ to associate with the lowly, the poor, and the oppressed, and that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God reconciles the world to himself—when we consider what God has done, we can have hope in what God has promised to do.
Tim Keller says it well:
When we grasp his [Jesus’] astonishing, costly sacrifice for us, transfer our trust and hopes from other things to Christ, and ask for God’s acceptance and grace for Christ’s sake, we begin to realize with the Spirit’s help the magnitude of our benefits and blessings in Christ. Then we begin to want almost desperately to know and love God for himself. His love and regard make popularity and worldly status look pale and thin. Being delighted in him and delighting him become inherently fulfilling and beautiful. (Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, 78)
No amount of self-talk will help you pray when you don’t feel like it unless that self-talk is true. To pray, the most important thing you can do is remember who God is, what he has done, and what he promises to do.