The Subtle Sin of Prayerlessness

The prophet Samuel recognized prayer as part of the will of God. When the people of Israel realized the sinfulness of their demand for a human king in the place of God’s sovereign rule, they begged Samuel to intercede for them: “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, so that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil by asking for ourselves a king” (1 Sam. 12:19). In response, Samuel exhorted them to return to God lest they again turn away to futile things. However, he also understood his own personal responsibility to continue to pray for them: “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way” (v. 23). The Hebrew word translated “ceasing” is hadal, which carries the meaning of stopping, neglecting, or refraining from doing something. Though the people of Israel behaved rebelliously, their faithful prophet refused to neglect prayer on their behalf. He refused to give up on them. Israel had clearly stepped out of the will of God, but Samuel was determined that he would not do the same. Instead, he recommitted himself to pray for his people as part of his own obedience to God.

It is critical for us to recognize this truth: Samuel called prayerlessness sin. How many of us are willing to do the same? Oh, we feel badly when our prayer lives become stagnant or virtually nonexistent. But do we call our lack of prayer sin and repent of it as a form of independence from God? We are ready to admit, sometimes even with a degree of spiritual pride, that we need others to pray for us because “we are struggling in our prayer lives.” But who will dare to stand in church and publicly declare, “I must confess to you my sin of prayerlessness. I need you to pray for me to truly repent of this sin. Please hold me accountable to my renewed commitment to a lifestyle of God-dependent prayer”? Prayerlessness is sin, as is the self-sufficient heart attitude of independence that feeds it. In his classic work The Sovereignty of God, A. W. Pink writes,

Prayer is not so much an act as it is an attitude—an attitude of dependency, dependency upon God. Prayer is confession of creature weakness, yea, of helplessness … Therefore, prayer is the very opposite of dictating to God. Because prayer is an attitude of dependency, the one who really prays is submissive, submissive to the Divine will; and submission to the Divine will means that we are content for the Lord to supply our need according to the dictates of His own sovereign pleasure.

Prayerlessness is the most subtle disclosure of our independence from God and is our depraved heart’s own declaration of sovereignty. Beware of the subtle sin of prayerlessness! We must commit ourselves anew to a lifestyle of constant prayer, which will keep us in a state of submission to the will of God. There are two aspects of the divine will that we must ponder, as they relate to the need to practice constant prayer.

Constant prayer protects us from temptation.

In Mark 14:38, Jesus exhorts his disciples, “Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The previous verse reads, “And He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?’” While Jesus was preparing to die, his disciples were sleeping! If we are honest we will quickly admit how much we are like they were.

The principle taught by Jesus is clear: Lack of diligence in prayer leaves us in a vulnerable position, making us easy prey for temptation. He called the disciples, and thereby us, to constant prayer, “that [we] may not come into temptation.” Prayer is necessary to keep us spiritually alert to the weakness of our own flesh and its propensity to sin. Lehman Straus writes, “No one can both sin and pray. True prayer will prevent us from sinning, or sin will prevent us from praying.” Jesus had taught his followers to pray, “And do not lead us into temptation” (Matt. 6:13). A lifestyle of dependence upon God in prayer guards our hearts from temptation and keeps us spiritually alert rather than lying in slumber, vulnerable to sin’s allure.

Constant prayer keeps us alert to the attacks of the devil.

In addition to his first letter to the Thessalonian church, there is another place in the New Testament where the apostle Paul calls his readers to constant prayer. To the church at Ephesus he writes, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). We are to pray constantly “with this in view.” With what in view? With an awareness of the reality of spiritual warfare, which he has just described in the previous eight verses (6:10–17). Peter also makes the same connection between prayer and spiritual alertness in the Christian’s war when he exhorts, “The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Peter 4:7). Included in the “all things” that Peter has in mind are the diabolical ways of the devil, whose agenda is to destroy Christians, for Peter again calls us to spiritual alertness in the very next chapter: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world” (5:8–9). Surely a significant part of our resistance to the attacks and temptations of the devil is a healthy dependence upon God’s strength which is expressed most obviously through prayer.

Our understanding of the reality of spiritual warfare greatly influences whether or not we will develop the habit of God-dependent prayer. Remaining in the will of God by remaining in prayer protects us from fleshly temptations as well as Satan’s insidious opposition.

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