“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Augustine’s famous prayer is my biography in a sentence. I first felt the sharp stab of desire as a child. I remember hearing a beautiful song that made me feel I hardly know what. It made me both happy and sad. It evoked longings I didn’t know I had and had no labels for. As I grew older, the longings became more acute.
We all feel this existential ache one way or another. C. S. Lewis wrote about this longing, calling it “the truest index of our real situation. The problem, of course, is that we usually mistake the object of our true desire. We try to slake our thirst with personal success, sexual fulfillment, meaningful relationships, the accumulation of cool stuff, and the approval of others. We forsake the fountain of living waters and try to drink from broken cisterns that can hold no water. But the ache remains. And that ache is one of the key triggers for prayer. In the words of the Psalmist,
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
The second trigger that drives me to prayer is guilt. I don’t mean feeling guilty if I don’t pray. I mean the conviction I feel for having sinned against God and others. To echo a confession that Robert Murray M’Cheyne made in one of his letters, “None but God knows what an abyss of corruption is in my heart.” Anyone who truly knows their own heart can say the same. I suppose I’ve prayed more prayers of confession than anything else. I’m so grateful for Psalm 51 and the other penitential psalms. These psalms, along with the promises of divine forgiveness, remind us that we don’t have to wallow in guilt or stay in our sins. With the tax-collector in Luke 18:13, we can pray, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
Perhaps nothing has helped my prayer life more than the pressure of difficult and painful circumstances. We call it stress, but the biblical word is “trial.” Sometimes our circumstances are almost unbearable. We feel like we’re about to sink. That’s why one of my favorite prayers in Scripture comes from the lips of Peter as he sinks beneath the waves: “Lord, save me!” It’s short, simple, and to the point. But for someone desperate for help, it’s enough.
On one level, trials are – well – stressful! But when we can embrace our trials as instruments in our Father’s hands, intended for our good, they can lead us into a deeper dependence on him. In the words of an old hymn,
Trials make the promise sweet
Trials give new life to prayer
Trials bring me at his feet
Lay me low and keep me there.
Another motivation that triggers prayer is love. I especially have in mind love and compassion for others. When Paul asked the believers in Rome to pray for him, he appealed to their love, a fruit of the Spirit’s work in their hearts. Love is the most effective spur to intercessory prayer.
As a pastor, I get a front row seat to people’s deepest needs and problems. More often than not, I feel inadequate to meet those needs. But I’m learning that the best way to love them is to pray for them, to ask the One whose sufficiency knows no bounds to meet their needs according to his riches in Christ.
One more trigger for prayer is gratitude. I should feel much more gratitude than I do. As M’Cheyne, whom I quoted above, said in a wonderful poem:
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see thee as thou art,
Love thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know –
Not till then – how much I owe.