Chapter 6: Hindrances to Prayer

Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 6: Hindrances to Prayer

We have examined the foundations of prayer in Christian belief, and have looked at the various moods and elements in prayer. The purpose of this survey has been less to present a scheme or pattern for praying than to try to understand what prayer is. A good many problems connected with prayer have been mentioned, and some answers to questions have been suggested. But before we go further, it will be fruitful to raise directly the issue as to why so many people do not pray effectively, or indeed, why they do not pray at all.

Many factors are involved, and it is seldom that there is one single hindrance with all other elements in the situation giving a clear affirmative. However, since these cannot all be talked about at once we shall have to treat them separately. The reader, if he desires, can put together such a combination of these factors as may fit his case.

The most common barriers to prayer are found in personal attitudes, in the social environment, in nervous tension and "spiritual dryness," in lack of knowledge of how to pray, in intellectual doubts, and in the frustration of unanswered prayer. On the last two points we have already made numerous observations along the way. It remains, however, to say something more about the others.

Personal Attitudes

If one had to have a perfect personal attitude before he began to pray, none of us would ever start. The reason we pray is that we are imperfect human beings greatly in need of help from beyond ourselves. Nevertheless, certain attitudes so stand in the way that if one holds them he is not likely to get far with his praying. Among these the most serious are indifference, self-sufficiency, impatience, and insincerity.

The most formidable barrier, not only to prayer but to religion in general, is the lack of any real awareness of the need of it. The general secularization of our society with its multitude of competing claims crowds religion to the wall. There are so many things that have to be done -- and done right away -- in business, at home, in all sorts of personal affairs that these seem much more urgent than intangible spiritual matters. Consider, for example, Christmas. Everybody knows that Christmas means the celebration of the birth of Christ. Actually, Christmas means to most people so much weary shopping, so much uneasiness as to what to give to whom, so much hurry, bustle, and confusion in getting ready for the festive day that they hardly stop to think about Christ. To illustrate again, one gets married at church, or at least by a minister, because it is appropriate to ask the blessing of God on this most sacred of human ties. As the great hour approaches, the dresses, the flowers, the guests, the gifts, the right tempo of the wedding march, how to get through the ceremony without stumbling over the words or dropping the ring seem a great deal more important than the blessing of God.

It is by getting lost in rivalry with competing interests that prayer slips out of life, and disappears from consciousness by the back door. Relatively few deny outright its value or legitimacy. Ask at random a dozen people if they believe in prayer, and what are their replies? Perhaps one of the number will deny that it is anything but wishful thinking, and another will give a strong affirmative testimony. From the rest one is apt to get such observations as these. "Doubtless there is something in it." "It seems to make some people feel better." "It’s all right if people want to." "Probably I ought to pray more." "I used to pray but now there doesn’t seem to be much time for it." "I suppose it’s a good thing to do. I haven’t thought much about it lately." Until trouble appears, there the matter rests.

A closely related attitude which repels the mood and practice of prayer is self-sufficiency. This is the particular temptation of the strong, for as long as one has good health, a congenial and lucrative job, social standing, and a fine family, one is apt not to think much about needing anything from God.

Self-sufficiency, which could be called by the harsher name of self-righteousness, takes many forms. The most common form is not conscious pride in one’s own goodness, for most people are ready to admit they have some faults. Nevertheless, satisfaction with one’s own integrity is a barrier of no slight proportions among people who think they are "as good as other people," and therefore by implication good enough.

A more subtle form is the stoic determination to grit one’s teeth and take what comes, asking no odds of God or man. To many minds it seems cowardly to ask support of God when one ought to stand on one’s own feet. Since independence of character is a desirable trait in anybody, such stoicism has much to commend it. When its fruits are examined, the results come mixed. Sometimes it leads to admirable achievement. Often it breeds, along with strength of will, cynicism if not contempt toward others less strong. When trouble appears in one’s own life which cannot be mastered, a devastating sense of frustration and futility is far more common than among those who are less self-sufficient and more willing to depend on God. Its boasted self-reliance virtually always capitulates at the point of accepting human support from family, friends, or physicians, though it usually fails to recognize that its self-sufficient logic is as much violated by human as it would be by divine assistance.

The most pervasive form of self-sufficiency is the general mood of trust in human powers, whether one’s own or those of other men, to devise or do all that man needs in order to master his world. This is the superbia, or pride, which the medieval church looked upon as the worst of the seven deadly sins, and which exponents of the neo-orthodox school, notably Reinhold Niebuhr in America, continually remind us is the root of sin. It is when men seek to be "as God," running their own affairs, trusting their own skills, seeking their own interests, that God is disobeyed by being forgotten. This is the characteristic mood of our times, in which not even the colossal destructiveness of two world wars and the possibility of the third have greatly disturbed our trust in human achievement.

The bearing of this form of self-confidence upon the banishment of a mood of prayer is obvious. Great numbers of people feel inwardly insecure. They must trust something. Instead of trusting God they try to trust themselves, the doctors, the psychiatrists, the technologists, and the makers and distributors of a multitude of gadgets. Prayer is not overtly rejected but it is by-passed as a naïve, probably harmless but certainly not very important, indulgence on the part of those not able to look after their own concerns.

Another attitude hostile to prayer is impatience. This too is accentuated by the speed-up of our times, though it is a characteristic human trait probably as old as humanity. We want to see results, and that quickly, or our interest lags and motives dry up.

Haste is antithetical to the mood of prayer. In one of the greatest of the psalms we read,

I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait,

And in his word do I hope.

My soul waiteth for the Lord

More than watchmen wait for the morning,

To wait in this mood of eager expectancy is right. But to expect quick results from prayer, and to stand watching for them as one might check on the prompt delivery of merchandise, is to debase the process. God is our Great Companion, not a unit in a cosmic assembly line.

Here as in most matters relating to our problem it is necessary to combine assurance with open-minded inquiry. We ought not to expect quick results from prayer, or reject it when they do not arrive. On the other hand, if one has prayed for days, months, years, and no difference appears either in outer events or the inner life, there ought to be honest self-scrutiny. Is one praying in the right mood? Is one’s spirit molded by the spirit of Christ? Is one’s request appropriate to the will of God? Is it in harmony with the nature of God’s world? Not infrequently the putting of these questions shows where the trouble lies.

We are told in the Bible that "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much," or as it is put in the more meaningful Revised Standard Version, "The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects." This puts the emphasis not merely on the effects, but on the need of sincerity in the approach.

When is prayer insincere? It is well to be chary about branding the prayers of another as hypocrisy, for "man looketh on the outward appearance" and only God is wise enough to judge fully any man’s heart. Yet one ought rigidly to scrutinize himself for traces of pharisaism. Is one saying words without much meaning just because it is the conventional thing to do? Or is one talking too much about his prayer life, and wondering perhaps why others do not do as well? Is one priding himself that he is getting along rather well with God? If so, it is time to stop abruptly and take notice whether one ought not rather to be saying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."

The Social Environment

In what has been said about the general speed-up of modern life and the impingement of many interests and demands, the matter of a social environment hostile to prayer has already been noted. There is need, however, to say a little more about particular environmental pressures.

For the most effective praying it is necessary either to be alone, to be in the presence of intimate and congenial human companions, or to be in such a mixed but in this respect united group as a worshipping congregation. Prayer at various times under all of these conditions is needed. Jesus, we are told, many times went apart from his disciples to pray, and in the climax of his personal struggle in Gethsemane he wanted no one near but God. Yet Jesus’ most extended recorded prayers are from the intimate companionship of the upper room. And though the Sermon on the Mount may be a collection of sayings from many occasions, that Jesus both preached and prayed in the presence of the multitude is hardly to be questioned. What this means for us is prayer in solitude, prayer in the family or in a small group of friends, prayer at church. The third type under normal conditions in Christian lands is available on Sunday, if not oftener. The other two are much harder to achieve.

One of the aspects of modern life most detrimental to personality in general, and not alone to the practice of prayer, is that the individual person is so seldom alone. Everybody needs certain areas of privacy for his best enrichment for social living. Yet whether one lives in barracks, dormitory, Quonset hut, or simply in a modern crowded apartment, there is continual jostling with other persons. One gets dressed in the morning in competition for the bath-room; one rides to work on a crowded elevated or subway train; one works in the midst of many desks or machines with a person at each of them; one braves the restaurant rush to get something to eat; one listens all day to somebody’s talk. Then one comes home at night to the noise of the family, who have themselves been jostled upon all day in different but equally imperative social situations. Where, in a life like this, is there any quiet solitude?

That prayer is not easy under such conditions is obvious. It is equally obvious that within a life of such tension and strain, prayer is essential if areas of calm are to be maintained. If one believes in prayer enough to make the effort and has learned to practice the presence of God, inward prayer in the midst of the most crowded environment is possible. This takes self-discipline, and continual reliance upon God for the effort as well as for its fruits. That one can pray in a subway, at a machine, in the midst of utter confusion, is demonstrated by the fact that many people have done it.

Such prayer in the midst of life’s daily commands is the secret of Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God, which every Christian would do well to reread at intervals. His life was simpler than ours. Yet he had his problems as several persons at once clamored for pancakes in his monastery kitchen. The heart of what has made his message live lies in the sentence,

The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.

With reference to prayer in the intimacy of the family or with close friends there are also problems, though somewhat different ones. If people can thus pray together and "with one heart and voice" lift their common aspiration to God, there is no firmer cement to bind the group together. This is one reason why the passing of the family altar is much to be regretted, for when it was vitally maintained, it not only enriched the spiritual lives of its participants but bound the family together with ties seldom approximated in our modern individualistic living. When each member of the family, though loving the other members, goes his own way without much concern for the interests of the others and without their doing anything in common, there is no deep foundation on which to build a common life. This is why the last vestige of family worship, the saying of grace at meals, ought to be maintained if there is any possible basis on which to retain it without its seeming a mockery and an empty formula.

But note this "if." Injunctions to restore the family altar, or even grace at meals, ought to be made with due concern for the circumstances. One ought not overtimidly to be daunted by the fear that some member of the family might be amused, or bored, or irritated. Perhaps he would not if it were tried! On the other hand, there is no fellowship in a forced ceremony even when this is a religious ceremony. If the attempt to pray together induces strain, makes tempers tense, and results only in suppressed or open conflict, the approach ought to be from another angle. One ought to pray inwardly for the grace to make the family as united and harmonious as possible. Meanwhile outwardly, without compromise or ostentation one must maintain, alone if necessary, whatever belongs to the religious life.

Prayer together among close friends can be a richly upbuilding as well as uniting experience. The "cell" group of ten or a dozen who share a common outlook, and who pray together in humble search for the power of God, can become a source of much dedicated action. With such prayer ought to be linked mutual encouragement and mutual correction in frankness and love. It too has its perils, for the closer the group draws together, the greater the danger of "cliquishness" and the greater the need to pray with outreach of spirit toward all. That self-love lurks in even our best enterprises is evident in the fact that such praying groups, which ought to be sources of humility and the democratic spirit, can become breeding grounds for the attitude of "holier than thou."

Prayer in the smaller and still more intimate group of two or three friends who love and understand each other well enough to share all their other interests can be a doorway to blessedness. Many friendships which thrive for a time and then go on the rocks could be cemented for eternity if there were spiritual depths at the center to be shared. Friends who live together but who have not yet formed the practice of praying together have great treasures yet to be discovered.

But this chapter deals with hindrances -- and we are talking now of rich possibilities. All that need further be said is that the absence of such congenial praying companionship is a great lack. Unfortunately not all are blessed with it, and many must of necessity do their praying in spiritual loneliness. But many more could find it or create it, for "deep calleth unto deep."

Finally, there is probably no point at which the spiritual life of persons -- particularly young persons -- is more affronted than by the fact that one’s friends and closest associates either scoff at religion or are indifferent to it. It is very hard to keep up a habit of churchgoing or of private prayer when no one else with whom one has other interests in common does it. If in addition there is subtle or open ridicule of "being pious," only the strongest can face it and keep going. This is one reason -- perhaps the most prevalent reason -- why religion fares so lamely in high school groups and on the college campus, for where the atmosphere has become predominantly secular, as it has in most communities, social pressures have enormous power.

There is no simple solution for this problem. However, two simple cautions may be imposed. First, religiously minded ministers and parents ought to understand the situation, not supposing it to be sheer badness or callousness in the young that keeps them from being responsive to religious influences. Many of these older people, if placed in the same situation and subjected to these pressures, would compromise and surrender their religious interests. Indeed, many of them already have, thus complicating the problem for the young by removing the backlog of support in home or church that ought to be there.

On the other hand no person, young or old, who believes in God and prayer and the Christian life and finds these convictions affronted by those about him, needs to surrender. Christian faith means devotion and loyalty in spite of obstacles. A religious life wrought out in the face of opposition has more tenacity and depth than one which follows a drifting current. Christianity has a cross at its center, and a cross is never easy. One of the crosses we are called to take up and bear for Christ by God’s help is fidelity to conviction in spite of lifted eyebrows and the curt or sneering remarks of friends.

What prayer can do in this situation -- and one may rejoice that nobody’s opposition can prevent us from praying inwardly -- is to put both understanding and iron in the soul. Prayer is not an emotional luxury to be indulged in simply in times of peace and ease when everybody else is doing it. Prayer is the offering up of our desires to God. One of our main desires should be to find --and to help others find -- the presence and power of God even when all around are walls of indifference and hostility. Such prayer, persistently engaged in and its leading followed, is bound to have its answer in stronger character and deepened religious faith.

Nervous Tension and Spiritual Dryness

Thus far we have been dealing with the barriers that particularly beset the way of the spiritually immature. Nobody is immune to the dangers lurking in bad personal attitudes or social pressures. If anyone thinks he is, then "let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Yet the hindrances that have been discussed thus far are more apt to daunt a novice in the art of prayer than one who through long experience has gained assurance and a sense of divine companionship.

We come now to a form of hindrance which is the pitfall of the spiritually mature. Spiritual dryness is a matter about which one finds more understanding in the devotional literature of the past than in most modern writing. (See my Dark Night of the Soul for a more extended treatment than is possible here.) It means the sense of spiritual frustration, barrenness, and loneliness that comes to one who after having prayed effectively for years now finds himself unable to do so. It is the darkness of spirit and emptiness of soul that ensues when one feels as if something had snapped in his religious life and his prayers now reach no further than his own lips. To the spiritually sensitive person, this loss of a sense of divine companionship is an acutely unhappy experience. Often it is joined with an exaggerated self-pity or self-accusation and with deep depression about life in general.

I have linked it with nervous tension in the heading of this section because some form of nerve strain invariably accompanies it, always as effect, usually as cause. It is not just the same thing as a nervous breakdown, for the latter comes to the religious and to the irreligious and may or may not have a relation to one’s prayer life. The psychiatrist who is accustomed to dealing with disordered nerves may not know what the patient is talking about when he feels as if God has forsaken him. Yet the connection between nerve strain and spiritual dryness is far from accidental.

The person caught in this unhappy experience needs to do several things. From a religious standpoint his most important need is to realize that even in the deepest spiritual darkness, God is with him in the dark. Though there may be no awareness of God’s presence, God has not forsaken him. Though one’s prayer may seem to have no answer, God is answering it by imparting the faith and the strength by which to go on.

At the same time one needs, more carefully than is usually done, to inquire what physical or social causes of nerve strain may in turn be causing this spiritual aridness. It comes to a great many very active Christians who in their eagerness to do the Lord’s work overdraw their reserves of energy. It is a simple fact, though too seldom reckoned with, that when the outgo of energy exceeds the intake one’s psychophysical balance is thrown out of true, and either depression or overexcitement results. Such depression hits an individual at his most vulnerable points, one of which to the religious person may well be his prayer life.

Again, the cause may be a purely physical matter, such as glandular imbalance, an infection in the blood stream, a vital organ out of place, nerve shock from an operation, persistent nagging pain, too many sedatives, lack of the right food, or vitamins, or fresh air, or exercise. Such physical matters need to be corrected if they can be, accepted if they cannot, and their probable effects appraised without spiritual confusion.

Again the trouble may lie in factors harder to cope with --domestic disharmony, friction in one’s work, a job one loathes but fears to leave, worry about the future, lack of success in some pivotal enterprise, separation by distance, by marriage, or by death from one who is deeply loved. Such matters can not only be disrupting in themselves, but when rebelled against in self-pity as they often are, can upset one’s entire psychophysical balance including the life of prayer.

Thus a dilemma appears. When such things happen, one ought to pray for wisdom and strength to do or endure what is needful. But when such things happen, one not infrequently finds himself less able to pray than before. What must be done in this dilemma is to understand the cause, pray as well as one can, trust God, and wait.

When such times of spiritual dryness come, one ought for the time being to make as few crucial decisions as possible. Yet he ought to keep on doing some useful work, both to serve God and to prevent undue preoccupation with himself. "Satan has work for idle hands to do" and the particular demons we are now discussing thrive on idleness. One needs, if possible, to have loving and understanding human companionship. One ought to seek such light from a trusted counselor as will help him understand self and the situation better, but he ought not to intensify his troubles by talking generally about them. Above all, one must keep on trusting God by faith where he cannot see, and wait for the storm to pass.

The Austrian mystic, Baron von Hügel, understood spiritual dryness better than most religious writers have, and he gives some graphic illustrations as to what to do about it. If one is climbing a mountain and a dense fog descends, an experienced mountaineer does not try to pick his way through it but camps out under some slight cover, smokes his pipe, and waits. When going on a sea journey, one prepares for "dirty weather" by making everything in his cabin as snug and secure as possible, and waits for the waves to subside. If one is crossing the desert on a camel and a blinding sandstorm comes up, the thing to do is to dismount, lie face downward on the sand with his cloak over his head, and wait an hour, three hours, half a day, until the storm abates and he can go on his way as before.

The hindrances to prayer are not fully canvassed. At the beginning of this chapter we listed as a further barrier the lack of knowledge of how to pray. This applies both to private praying and effective participation in public worship. So important a theme requires some chapters of its own.