Being a Christian is not easy. We know a certain amount of difficulty comes with the Christian life: difficulties in doing good; opposition from the world; efforts to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. But there are also internal difficulties, and those can be challenging too. One sort of difficulty can be with prayer. While sometimes prayer is rich and profound, with a real sense of the sacred and of the presence of God, at other times it seems dry, arid, empty. Often this happens when we ourselves are going through difficulties in our life. At times like this, prayer can feel as if we are merely going through the motions, and God is far away. Christians sometimes describe this as “being in the desert”. In the same way as the desert is dry and harsh, prayer can sometimes feel dry and unrewarding. When this happens, what is a Christian to do?
First, don’t panic. Jesus’ example shows that prayer is not always easy. He spent forty days fasting and praying in the desert [Luke 4:1-2], he got hungry and was tempted, yet he persisted, and prevailed. He prayed in the garden before his crucifixion: he was so overcome by fear and anxiety that as he prayed, he sweated blood [Luke 22:44], yet he persisted and prevailed: he mastered himself and entrusted his life to the Father, giving it up on the cross for the sake of the world. Our prayer, even if it is dry or difficult, is not as hard as this: we, too, can make it through.
There are three things that Jesus did when he had difficulty praying that we would do well to emulate. The first of these is removing distractions. When Jesus wanted to pray, he went to deserted places [Luke 5:16], where there would be no comings and goings, no distractions, no crowds. When Jesus prayed before his crucifixion, he went to the garden of Gethsemane at night, when nobody was there [Matthew 26:36]. He knew that distractions would get in the way, so he avoided them. We have many more distractions than Jesus did: our electronic devices, for example, can be very distracting. Put them away. Make them hard to retrieve if you need to. Otherwise it is almost impossible to avoid the temptation of that distraction, especially when prayer is difficult. The distraction becomes that much more attractive, and it becomes hard to resist.
The second thing Jesus does is show persistence. Jesus does not quit when prayer becomes difficult, he stays praying. In other words, he “leans into” the difficulty. This is a challenging thing, because when prayer is hard, the temptation is to stop, to run away from it. We should do anything but. Keep praying. If you need to ease things a bit, pray more simply, but don’t quit.
The third thing he does is to keep in mind that prayer does not stay difficult forever. When Jesus was forty days in the desert, severely tempted, he resisted temptations and persisted in prayer, and the Father sent him comfort in the end [Matthew 4:11]. Likewise when he was suffering in prayer in Gethsemane, even though his friends were unable to stay awake to keep him company, the Father sent him strength [Luke 22:43]. We, too, should remember that prayer, however its difficulty, is time with God, and God loves us. He will not leave us in difficulties forever, he will come to our aid. But he is God: it needs to be on his terms, not our’s. Jesus’ prayer to his Father at Gethsemane says it truly: “yet, not what I want, but what you want”. [Luke 22:42b] It feels scary letting God have his way: if we do, will we be OK? Yes, we will. Trust him: he loves us, he knows what we need even better than we do. Let us take Jesus’ example: avoid distractions, persist in prayer even if it is difficult, and trust that God, in his time and in his way, will surely come to our aid.