I almost choked to death once when I was in middle school.
Perhaps it wasn’t quite that dramatic in reality, but at least that’s how I remember it. I was in the cafeteria, having just bought my daily ration of cheeseburger and onion rings, and was steadily plowing through the burger when I sucked an un-chewed bite of burger into my windpipe. I couldn’t breathe.
I remember my eyes going wide and feeling a sense of panic, partly because I was choking, but also partly because I was immediately embarrassed. Rather than grabbing someone next to me and motioning for help, I stood up, moved behind my chair, and doubled over the top of it trying to perform the Heimlich maneuver on myself. It worked, I coughed up the burger in my mouth, and then and sat back down. Crazy enough, no one even noticed, and I just went on eating.
The thing that sticks in my mind today as I remember that experience was how sudden it was. I was talking, laughing, eating – and then all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe. It was an immediate emergency that required immediate action. And sometimes we experience emergencies similar to that in our spiritual lives. There is an occasion of sin, or pain, or panic that requires immediate attention.
Sometimes that happens, but far more often, the things that happen in our spiritual lives are much more gradual. The changes – either positive or negative – happen slowly. So slowly, in fact, that sometimes we don’t even know they’re happening until they’re already done. Our spiritual lives can deteriorate in that slow fashion that’s barely perceptible. In the negative sense, then, it’s more like suffocating than it is like choking.
One of the arenas in which that occurs is in our prayer lives. We can turn around one day and realize that we are barely even communicating with God at all, and wonder what happened. How did it get to be this way? How did we lose touch? It wasn’t like one thing suddenly happened and we stopped praying; it was a slow process of atrophy. We didn’t choke; we slowly suffocated. What might make that kind of thing happen to our prayers? Here are three potential causes of that slow, steady decline:
Surely you know the feeling in a human relationship when there is something between you and another person. Maybe some way in which you have wronged another person, and though they say they forgive you, it still feels like there is a block between you. Things are awkward. Uncomfortable. And slowly, the communication starts to decline. The same thing happens in our prayers.
If we are unconvinced that God has truly and completely forgiven us in Christ, then we will slowly but surely stop talking to Him. Stop trusting Him. Stop believing that He can and will intervene in any other circumstance. The more we live with a sense of guilt over our sin, the less intimate we will be in prayer to the Father. And when we are feeling this way, we must continually fight, for the sake of intimacy in that relationship, with the truth:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:1-2).
We live in an increasingly cynical world. We think we have seen everything, heard everything, experienced everything, and therefore nothing really brings us delight any more. Rather, we assume ulterior motives and nefarious reasons behind everything. We constantly wait for the other shoe to drop and find ourselves moving away from simple trust in a God who loved us enough to die for us.
This kind of cynicism might help us shrewdly navigate the corridors of culture, but it will choke the life out of our prayers. That’s because prayer, when you really boil it down, is built on just a few very simple principles: God loves me. God knows what is best. God wants to hear from me. God will do the right thing. Cynicism challenges all of that, and we find ourselves, over time, losing a simple posture like this:
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly (Psalm 5:3).
When you think back over the course of your life, when were you most fervent in prayer? When were you most passionate in your pleading? Surely it was during a time when you sensed a great need in your life or in the world around you. Sad as it is, the more prosperous we think we are, the less we think we need to come to God in prayer.
What we fail to realize is that our need for God and His care and intervention does not wax and wane with our personal prosperity; it’s only our perception of our need that changes. Your next breath? Your next heartbeat? The world continuing to spin on its axis? All these things are held together in the hands of God Almighty. We need Him as much during days of plenty as we do in want, but the days of plenty lull us to sleep. Be careful, then, that the comfort of the every day is not slowly suffocating your prayer life:
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34).
Prayer is a gift. A tremendous gift. But it is also one that must be nurtured and grown. Beware the tendency toward sluggishness, friends, and fight it with the truth – the truth that we are forgiven, that life does not have to be that complicated, and that we are still people of great need.