In the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus implies that we should be praying every day. He does this especially when He teaches us that we are to ask God to, “Give us this day our daily bread” (v. 11). If we are to ask God for “daily” bread and not “weekly” or “monthly” or even “yearly” bread, then it is obvious that Jesus intends for us to be praying every day. In other words, Jesus is teaching us an important lesson about how we are to pray—and the answer is, daily. But He is also teaching us something about the place that prayer should have in our lives.
If prayer is something that we are to engage in every day, then that means it should be a fundamental part of our lives. It shouldn’t be regarded as tangential or peripheral to the Christian experience. It isn’t the icing on the cake of Christianity. Instead, it lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian and is at least as important as eating is for our physical bodies. This is true not simply of prayers of supplication for “our daily bread” and for deliverance from evil, but it is also true of prayers of adoration, confession, and thanksgiving. All the elements of prayer are as important for us as food is for our physical bodies.
Most of us can go for short periods of time without eating food, either because we are dieting or fasting, but we must all eat sooner or later. If we don’t eat, we will soon die. Our bodies cannot last for more than a week or two without food—and even if they are able to last that long that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for us to do on a regular basis. We will stunt our growth or inhibit our brain function or something worse. That is why Jesus instructs us to pray for God’s provision of “our daily bread” every day. He knows that we need it.
Jesus would seem to be saying that something similar is true of prayer, that prayer is just as necessary for us spiritually as eating is for us physically. We may be able to “fast” from prayer for short periods of time. But we cannot quit altogether, not unless we are dead spiritually. Using the metaphor of breathing instead of eating but expressing the same basic point, JC Ryle once put it like this: “Just as the first sign of life in an infant when born into the world, is the act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born again, is praying.”
What follows is an expansion of this idea taken from my book Persistent Prayer:
Breathing is indispensable for physical life. We can live only for short periods without it. No matter how adept we may be at holding our breath, we all must breathe at some point. And prayer, according to Ryle, operates the same way. We may “hold our breath” from time to time and experience seasons of prayerlessness, but sooner or later, if we are alive spiritually, we all must pray.
To look at it another way, praying is just as necessary for the Christian as growing oranges is for the orange tree. Every healthy orange tree will necessarily produce oranges. It may not produce as many oranges as it did in previous seasons or as many as other nearby trees produce. But it will produce oranges. If it doesn’t, then there is something wrong with the tree. It is either dead, or it is not actually an orange tree after all. The lifeblood of the orange tree will necessarily overflow in the production of fruit in its branches.
In the same way, the new life that is within the Christian will necessarily overflow in prayer. Sometimes this “overflow” may produce more prayer than it has in past seasons of our lives; and sometimes it may produce less. Sometimes it may produce more for us than it does for others around us. The amount of prayer isn’t as important as the presence of it.
We see this reality in Romans 8, for instance, when Paul first differentiates Christians from non-Christians by the presence of the Holy Spirit living within them, giving new life to their “mortal bodies” (Rom. 8:9–11), and then teaches that the same Holy Spirit “helps us” in our prayers by “interced[ing] for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). The point is that the Spirit who inhabits every Christian overflows in the life of the believer in prayer. To use Ryle’s language of breathing, this means that the Holy Spirit not only helps us to breathe but actually ensures that we will breathe, in the same way that the lifeblood of the orange tree ensures the production of oranges in the branches.
Acts 9 suggests something similar as well. In this passage, the Lord tells Ananias to go see Saul, one of the early church’s most zealous persecutors, and to lay hands on him so that he may regain his eyesight after being struck blind on the road to Damascus. Because the Lord knows that Ananias will be concerned about putting his life at risk in doing this, he reassures him that Saul is no longer the same man. He has been changed on the road to Damascus. The man that Ananias is going to visit is now a Christian himself. The Lord gives Ananias the reassurance of this change in Saul in five words (only three in the original Greek): “For behold, [Saul] is praying” (Acts 9:11). The fact that Saul is praying is enough in and of itself to alleviate Ananias’s fears and to convince him that Saul is no longer a persecutor of Christ but a follower instead. The new life in Saul manifests itself in prayer in the same way that the new life in an infant manifests itself in breathing or the new life in a tree manifests itself in fruit.
Prayer is meant to be an integral part of the Christian life, as integral as eating or breathing is to physical life. Jesus tells us as much when He teaches us to pray every day. Tomorrow we will delve into the final point: we are to pray in light of our salvation.