I've been reading a book simply called Prayer (originally published 1662/1692; Banner of Truth, 2012), by John Bunyan, the puritan pastor who also wrote The Pilgrim's Progress. It's been very helpful for ordering my heart and my thoughts toward God. Bunyan goes to great lengths to humble his readers with the awareness of their own sin and weakness. He brings you low under the weight of your guilt and depravity, and for good reason. Here's his explanation of why:
Here is the life of prayer, when in or with the [Holy] Spirit, a man being made sensible of sin, and how to come to the Lord for mercy, he comes, I say, in the strength of the Spirit, and cries "Father" [Romans 8:15]. That one word spoken in faith is better than a thousand prayers, as men call them, written and read in a formal, cold, luke-warm way.
O how far short are the people of being sensible of this, who count it enough to teach themselves and children to say the Lord's prayer, the [Apostles'] creed, with other sayings; when, as God knows, they are senseless of themselves, their misery, or what it is to be brought to God through Christ! Ah, poor soul! study your misery, and cry to God to show you your confused blindness and ignorance, before you be too ready in calling God your Father, or teaching your children so to say. And know that to say God is your Father, in a way of prayer or conference, without any experiment [experience] of the work of grace on your souls, it is to say you are Jews and are not, and so do lie [Revelation 3:9]. You say, "Our Father"; God says, "You blaspheme!" (28)
If Bunyan's right, it's probably because you are not sensible of the depth of your own sin and misery. In other words, your prayer life is likely cold and dead because you don't see the extent of your need to go to God. Sure, you might run to Him when you have a crisis to be rescued from: illness, stress about school, heavy traffic, or some other uncomfortable situation. But these things will only bring you to God periodically and selfishly. The question is, Are you aware of your constant, complete dependence on God because of your sinful misery? Do you feel a perpetual need to call upon God to sustain you in the midst of your battle with your sinful flesh? Do you live in the mercy of Jesus Christ? And if not, why not? Because you are not sensible of your sin.
Lately, I've been seeing a glaring reason we have little to no sense of our sinful misery. And that is that we are worldly.
Now, I suspect that's a vague and mysterious word to our ears. Worldly. But it's really quite simple. Worldly = World-like. Like the world.
But what does it mean for us to be like the world? Here's an idea…
We talk about all the movies we've seen recently, which is usually very many. We talk about all of the things we liked or didn't like about each movie, and compare them based on criteria that don't involve any real spiritual discernment. That is to say, our assessment of the movies rarely involves any consideration of how that movie did or didn't lead us to worship God. We just talk about how it made us feel, whether or not we found it exciting, or funny, or sad. Sure, we may give a cursory assessment of the relative amount of profanity or immorality in the movie; but hey, that's what it means to be a Christian, right? You still watch and participate in everything the world does, but you're able to say, "Well, that was inappropriate. And aren't I so holy for knowing that?" And that's the depth of our spiritual discernment.
We go on to quote line after line of the funniest or most action-packed scenes from this comedy or that super-hero movie. We quote some more lines. Then some more. We bond with the other people who know what we're talking about, and we feel as though we have real fellowship because we possess special and privileged knowledge. We keep a balance of popular entertainment and obscure lesser-known entertainment so we can maintain that perfect blend of feeling normal and superior. We define ourselves and our relationships with others based on the degree to which we agree on our assessment of and affection for this or that entertainment source.
We then go on to talk about how excited we are for new movies or TV-show seasons coming out. We (giddily) confess being consumed with anticipation for the next episode, or the next season of our favorite TV show, or even just a 1-minute trailer!
Have you witnessed or participated in this conversation? Most of us have.
Here's the problem: When you live in a fictional world (or dozens of fictional worlds) with fictional characters and fictional situations and fictional relationships and fictional hardship and suffering and joy, it tends to numb you to the realities of the world around you, especially when those worlds are conveyed with the power of images. I mean, hey, if you can get emotional satisfaction from the situations and relationships displayed to you in movies and TV, who needs real relationships? After all, real relationships require work and effort and vulnerability. I don't have to be vulnerable with my TV screen. And if I start to feel dissatisfied with my movies and shows, there's an endless supply of new ones (and old ones) to latch on to in order to find contentment.
Add Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter to this endless stream of frivolous entertainment and you get a recipe for spiritual deadness. You get a flood of distractions which incessantly defer awareness of your own misery. And if you're unaware of your sinful misery, you will never come to God the Father for mercy.
And so, if your prayer life feels formal, cold, and lukewarm, I suggest it might be because you've structured your life in such a way that you never have to sit and consider the holiness of God and your own miserable predicament of sin. Entertainment is just one example of how we do this. Some will use work and responsibility and feeling important to distract themselves from the state of their soul.
This is the natural thing to do. After all, no one wants to dwell on their own sinful misery. I sure don't. Why would I? It's depressing! And the world tells me I shouldn't. In fact, I'm told I should think more highly of myself because I'm really a wonderful person. Why not believe that? Here's why: because dwelling on my sinful misery is the only way to have fellowship with God. That's why Bunyan says, "If you would more fully express yourself before the Lord, study, first, your fallen estate" (44). Of course, true fellowship with God doesn't stop there, but it's a necessary prerequisite to what comes next: "secondly, [study] God's promises; thirdly, the heart of Christ, which you may know or discern by his condescension and bloodshedding, also by mercy he has formerly extended to great sinners."
Remember, a Christian's citizenship is in heaven, with the Lord, and that's where our hearts should be too. What ought to consume our thoughts and affections and conversations is how to please Him. He is our Master who has bought us with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20), and whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, we ought to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). So let us always be examining the state of our soul by comparing our excitement over frivolous and worldly things to our excitement over the things of God—fellowship with His people, prayer, study of His Word, service, worship, etc.
Let's come to the Word of God and honestly assess ourselves by its standard. Take this passage from Jude:
But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, "In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts." These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. (Jude 1:17–21, emphasis added)
If so, beware of the state of your soul, and cry out to God for mercy.