This article is part of the How to Pray series.
Seasons of Apathy
Many Christians experience seasons of spiritual apathy when the heart seems miles behind what we know to be true in our minds. We might love the Lord with our minds but struggle with disconnected hearts. Sometimes these droughts of the soul are the result of neglected spiritual nourishment, but sometimes they seem to arrive without explanation. Praying is especially difficult when your heart feels disinterested, distracted, or devoid of emotion. It can feel awkward to pray for the desire to pray, but the Lord knows our hearts better than we do, and he knows what we need. When your heart feels cold toward the Lord, praying about prayer can be the kindling of the fire that warms your affections for Christ again.
Pray for the Lord to reveal any sin that is keeping you from prayer.
At times our hearts are resistant to prayer because we are holding on to sinful habits. We can’t walk in obedience to Christ or intimacy with him if we are clinging to pet sins or ignoring behaviors in opposition to following Jesus. If you know that your resistance to prayer stems from disobedience, pray to love him more than your sin. Because you have been set free from sin, you are no longer a slave to it. You are free! Ask the Lord to help you be who you really are in Christ, not who you used to be. And then walk in obedience.
When our hearts feel apathetic, it can be difficult to rightly see our sin. Perhaps you’re not sure if there is any sin inhibiting prayer. David prayed that the Lord would reveal any wicked ways in his heart, and we can do the same. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous ways in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23–24) Because our hearts are deceptive, a regular examination helps us see ourselves as we really are, to see God as he really is, and to remember what Jesus did at the cross to reconcile us to a holy God. Pray for the Lord to reveal areas of sin you might be hardened or blind to. As he does, confess them and repent.
Pray for the Lord to stir your affections for him.
It’s not uncommon to have days when you feel dull towards the Lord. You might even feel embarrassed to confess that you cannot muster any affection towards the Lord. These feelings aren’t unique; we see them in the Psalms. Asaph wrote, “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you” (Ps. 73:22). But the Lord knows our weaknesses, and he has given us everything we need for life and godliness. The gift of prayer is that we can come boldly before the Lord, even when we don’t know what to say or how to feel. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us and Jesus is ever praying for us (see Rom. 8:26–27, Heb. 7:25).
Knowing that you aren’t praying alone, ask the Lord to awaken your heart to joy, love, and contentment in him. And then take steps to engage your heart with the beauty and kindness of the Lord. Preach the gospel to yourself, focus on God’s character in the word, meditate on a passage of Scripture so that it takes root deep down in your heart. Fix your gaze on Christ until you remember how much he loves you. Don’t be discouraged if there’s not an overnight change. The cumulative effects of looking to Christ in Scripture will change the way you think about the Lord. Fixing your gaze on Jesus may be a hard-won practice, but the Lord will work good from your efforts at renewing your mind.
Pray for and seek accountability.
Your prayers are never a solitary activity. The Spirit and the Son are interceding on your behalf as you pray to the Father. The Godhead is invested in your prayer life! Additionally, the church can be a gift to us when we struggle to engage with the Lord in prayer. If spiritual dryness or apathy are keeping you from regular, intentional prayer, ask the Lord to help you find a fellow church member who will both hold you accountable and pray for you.
Prayer is an act of both obedience and gratitude.
Each week I meet with a friend from church. She asks questions about my spiritual disciplines and prays for me throughout the week in the areas where I’m lazy or weak. Prayerlessness has long been a topic of discussion; knowing that my friend is actually praying about my prayer life exhorts me to seek the Lord daily. I’m not the only one invested in my prayers! Praying with someone about your struggle to pray could revive your disinterested soul and remind you what a privilege it is to come before the Lord at any time.
Pray for an obedient heart.
When it comes down to it, how we feel matters less than obedience. Prayer is an act of both obedience and gratitude. Jesus tells us how to pray in the Lord’s prayer and begins with the assumption that we will pray. He said, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites,” and “when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” (Matt. 6:5,7 emphasis added). He also demonstrated the need for prayer by slipping away from the crowds and disciples to pray (see Matt. 14:23, Mark 1:35, John 17). The apostle Paul called believers to unceasing prayer many times in his epistles (see Eph. 6:18, Phil. 4:6–7, Col. 4:2, 1 Thess. 5:17–19). Jesus’s half-brother addressed several specific reasons for prayer in James 5:13–18. Believers are expected to pray, and believers must pray in obedience to Scripture. But the motivation behind this obedience isn’t duty; it’s gratitude.
The author of Hebrews charges believers to draw near to God the Father because of Jesus’s sacrifice at the cross. “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh. . . let us draw near. . . ” (Heb. 10:19–20, 22). Prior to Christ’s coming, the people of God could only seek him through a Levitical priest at the tabernacle and later the temple. A curtain separated the people from God’s holy presence. But when Christ died for us at the cross, he bought us direct access to the Father. We must take advantage of such a gift and draw near to God in prayer because we can. We pray when we don’t feel like it because Jesus made it possible.
Pray for perseverance and practice it.
Our flesh would have us believe that we should give up when prayer feels hard. Surely a break is what we need! But it is more likely that abandoning prayer will extend a season of disaffection rather than shorten it. Disengaging from prayer isn’t the right answer. Perseverance is. Pressing forward in prayer is how we learn to really pray. Perseverance is how we get past the brick-wall feeling and walk with delight in the nearness of God.
Don Carson wrote that we should “pray long enough and honestly enough, at a single session, to get past the feeling of formalism and unreality that attends not a little praying. We are especially prone to such feelings when we pray for only a few minutes, rushing to be done with a mere duty. To enter the spirit of prayer we must stick to it for a while.” 1In other words, we must do as the Puritans encouraged and “pray until you pray.”
The cure for praying with a cold, apathetic heart is prayer itself. We pray for God to help us obey, to persevere, to abandon sins that entangle and distract, and to stir our affections for Christ anew. We obey by practicing prayer. We recite what is true about God and Jesus and our new status as heirs—not because God needs to be reminded but because we do. Over time, the ice will thaw, the heart will warm, and we will delight in the presence and love of God. All the hours of practicing prayer when our hearts are cold are never wasted. They are the path we travel to renewed love for conversation with the Lord.
- D.A. Carson, Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2015).
Glenna Marshall is the author of Everyday Faithfulness: The Beauty of Ordinary Perseverance in a Demanding World.
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