Excuses For Not Praying

by D. A. Carson

Excerpt from A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers by D.A. Carson

Pages 111-121

I Am Too Busy

Lillian Guild tells an amusing story of an occasion when she and her husband were driving along and happened to notice a late-model Cadillac with its hood up, parked at the side of the road. Its driver appeared somewhat perplexed and agitated. Mrs. Guild and her husband pulled over to see if they could offer assistance. The stranded driver hastily and somewhat sheepishly explained that he had known when he left home that he was rather low on fuel, but he had been in a great hurry to get to an important business meeting so he had not taken time to full up his tank. The Cadillac needed nothing more than refueling. The Guilds happened to have a spare gallon of fuel with them, so they emptied it into the thirsty Cadillac, and told the other driver of a service station a few miles down the road. Thanking them profusely, he sped off.

Twelve miles or so later, they saw the same car. Hood up, stranded at the side of the road. The same driver, no les bemused than the first time, and even more agitated, was pathetically grateful when they pulled over again. You guessed it: he was in such a hurry for his business meeting that he had decided to skip the service station and press on in the dim hope that the gallon he had received would take him to his destination.

It is hard to believe anyone would be so stupid, until we remember that that is exactly how many of us go about the business of Christian living. We are so busy pressing on to the next item on the agenda that we choose not to pause for fuel. Sadly, Christian leaders may be among the worst offenders. Faced with constant and urgent demands, they find it easy to neglect their calling to the ministry of the Word and prayer because they are so busy. Indeed, they are tempted to invest all of their activity with transcendental significance, so that although their relative prayerlessness quietly gnaws away at the back of their awareness, the noise and pain can be swamped by the sheer importance of all the tings they are busily doing.

I Feel Too Dry Spiritually To Pray

Hidden behind this excuse are two presuppositions that are really quite monstrous. The first is that the acceptability of my approach to God in prayer out to be tied to how I feel. But is God especially impressed with us when we feel joyful or carefree or well rested or pious? Is not the basis of any Christian’s approach to the heavenly Father the sufficiency of Christ’s mediating work on our behalf? Is not this a part of what we mean when we pray “in Jesus’ name”? Are we not casting a terrible slur on the cross when we act as if the usefulness or acceptability of our prayers turns on whether we feel full or dry? True, when we feel empty and dispirited we may have to remind ourselves a little more forcefully that the sole reason why God accepts us is the grace that he ha bestowed upon us in the person and work of his Son. But that is surely better than giving the impression that we are somehow more fit to pray when we feel good.

The second unacceptable presupposition behind this attitude is that my obligation to pray is somehow diminished when I do not feel like praying. This is to assign to my mood or my feelings the right to determine what I ought to do. And that, of course, is unbearably self-centered. It means that I, and I alone, determine what is my duty, my obligation. In short, it means that I am y own god. It is to act as if the Bible never says, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12:12, emphasis added).

I Feel No Need To Pray

This excuse is a trifle trickier than the first two. Few of us are so crass that we self-consciously reason, “I am too important to pray. I am too self-confident to pray. I am too independent to pray.” Instead, what happens is this: Although abstractly I may affirm the importance of prayer, in reality I may treat prayer as important only in the lives of other people, especially those whom I judge to be weaker in character, more needy, less competent, less productive. Thus, while affirming the importance of prayer, I my not feel deep need for prayer in my own life. I may be getting along so well without much praying that my self-confidence is constantly being reinforced. That breeds yet another round of prayerlessness.

What is God’s response? If Christians who shelter beneath such self-assurance do not learn better ways by listening to the Scriptures, God may address them in the terrible language of tragedy. We serve a God who delights to disclose himself to the contrite, to the lowly of heart, to the meek. When God finds us so puffed up that we do not feel our need for him, it is an act of kindness on his part to take us down a peg or two; it would be an act of judgment to leave us in our vaulting self-esteem.

I Am Too Bitter To Pray

We cannot live long in this world without coming across injustice, chronic lack of fairness. Many of us accept such sin with reasonable equanimity, reasoning that it is, after all, a fallen world. But when the injustice or unfairness is directed against us, our reaction may be much less philosophical. Then we may nurture a spirit of revenge, or at least of bitterness, malice, and gossip. Such sins in turn assure that our prayers are never more than formulaic; eventually such sin may lead to chronic prayerlessness. “How can I be expected to pray when I have suffered so much?” “Don’t talk to me about praying for my enemies: I know who has kept me from being promoted.”

Life itself is consumed by the petty assessment of how well you are perceived by those around you. In this morass of self-pity and resentment, real prayer is squeezed out. In other words, many of us do not want to pray because we know that disciplined, biblical prayer would force us to eliminate sin that we rather cherish. It is very hard to pray with compassion and zeal for someone we much prefer to resent.

I Am Too Ashamed To Pray

Shame encourages us to hide from the presence of God; shame squirrels behind a masking foliage of pleasantries while refusing to be honest; shame foster flight and escapism; shame engenders prayerlessness.

We cannot successfully hide from God anyway, “for a man’s ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all his paths” (Prov. 5:21). “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). But if it is futile to run from God, our sense of shame can scarcely be an adequate ground to excuse our prayerlessness. Rather, it ought to be a goad that drives us back to the only one who can forgive us and grant us utter absolution, back to the freedom of conscience and the boldness in prayer that follow in the wake of the joyful knowledge that we have been accepted by a holy God because of his grace.

I Am Content With Mediocrity

Some Christians want enough of Christ to be identified with him but not enough to be seriously inconvenienced; they genuinely cling to basic Christian orthodoxy but do not want to engage in serious Bible study; they value moral probity, especially of the public sort, but do not engage in war against inner corruptions; they fret over the quality of the preachers sermon but do not worry much over the quality of their own prayer life. Such Christians are content with mediocrity.



Excerpt from A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers by D.A. Carson

God doesn't demand hectic church programs and frenetic schedules; he only wants his people to know him more intimately, says D. A. Carson. The apostle Paul found that spiritual closeness in his own fellowship with the Father. A Call to Spiritual Reformation investigates the Epistles to see what lessons Paul taught in his "school of prayer." Christians today can still achieve the confidence Paul enjoyed by following his life-shaping principles and searching for a deeper devotional experience.

Author Information: D. A. Carson is Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of How Long, O Lord? Teach Us to Pray and Right with God. and editor of