I didn’t grow up a Southern Baptist, but have been a member of a Southern Baptist church for over 25 years. One thing I have learned about Southern Baptists is they like to count. Are other denominations like this? Probably, but from my experience as a Southern Baptist, serving in various capacities, numbers are taken seriously. Attendance is taken in worship and Sunday School classes. Numbers of decisions are always tallied as a result of Vacation Bible School and short term mission trips. And of course, every dollar is counted in the offering plate. My point is not to criticize this, to make it seem like we shouldn’t pay attention to how many people attend our churches and how much money is given. We should definitely do this. But I think there’s a temptation that can go unnoticed and a certain mindset can develop if we interpret these numbers in a certain way. Does an increase always equal greater success for the Kingdom of God? Does it always mean our methods are God-honoring? Does a decrease in numbers always equal less impact for Christ or a failure to be faithful? I’m sure many people have written on this same theme, but let me tie it to our prayer lives.
Since the industrial revolution, there’s been an increased fixation with productivity and efficiency. The bottom line in any activity or industry has become – “How much did you produce and how long did it take you to produce it?” The goal has always been to produce more at a faster rate and with less cost and effort. We’ve so absorbed this way of doing things that we’ve uncritically adjusted our lives and our expectations according to the answers to these questions. We unquestioningly live according to this framework.
But prayer doesn’t work that way. And this is the reason I think that a lot of us struggle to pray consistently and confidently, myself included. Here are at least two reasons why.
Prayer Requires Faith in What We Can’t See
Productivity is all about what we can see and what we can measure, but Hebrews 11:1 gives us the definition of faith – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Our faith and our prayers depend on a God we can’t see. We must admit that we will never be able to measure the effects of our work for the kingdom accurately, because we can’t see everything! As we serve God and lift up our requests to him, we must constantly and ultimately trust him with the results. If I support a missionary to an unreached people group and they serve for a short period of time without measurable results that we can see, will this discourage me in how I pray for them, or will it lead me to discontinue my support? Our your prayers for your pastor and your church guided solely by what you see? Our faith and our prayers should be fixed on God, who we can’t see, and the promises he has made that he will build his church. Numbers alone shouldn’t be the barometer of faithfulness and they shouldn’t be the sole guide of my prayers. Results aren’t always immediate and faith and prayer require a level of endurance and patience that just won’t fit into the productivity paradigm.
What about parenting? We’re tempted to think that if we put in the effort as parents we will get a godly child as a result. Put the coin in the vending machine, and out comes the candy, right? But when we don’t see fruit growing in our children’s lives, do we hit the panic button in prayer? Or is our faith and are our prayers guided by the character of God, who is faithful and good, who has come to seek and to save the lost, a God who loves generational faithfulness? Do we pray confidently, no matter what we see with our eyes, knowing that God is working in thousands of hidden ways we’ll never see? No wonder the psalmist exhorted us to be strong and courageous as we wait on the Lord! (Psalm 31:24)
The truth is that the life of faith involves many things we can’t see and we can’t measure! This requires us to have a prayer life undergirded by a steely-eyed kind of faith and trust that is formed by who God is and what he has promised in his word.
Prayer is not Efficient
The dictionary says that efficiency has to do with functioning in the best possible way with the least amount of time and effort. But anyone who has dedicated themselves to prayer for any length of time knows that it requires a lot of time and effort and there are no shortcuts or hacks. Prayer is not efficient.
There have been many times when I’ve expended a lot of Spirit-led effort praying for someone or a certain situation. In those times I don’t want to be efficient. I want to linger as God reminds me of his promises and anchors me deeper in faith. It’s in those times that God gives me eyes to see things that can’t be measured and courage to wait as he works not as efficiently as I’d like but as faithfully as he has promised.
God doesn’t work according to the world’s principles of productivity and efficiency. But he does work! And prayer requires that we wait on our God and trust in his faithfulness, not merely in what our eyes can see. Our times in prayer may not produce immediate and measurable results but God does hear us. And prayer may not be the most efficient thing you do today, but we are promised that it is effective.
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.Isaiah 64:4