Why It’s Hard to Pray in the Modern World

The late American author David Foster Wallace once began a commencement address with the following parable: “There are two young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish. The older fish nods at them and says: ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ The two fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks: ‘What the heck is water?’”

Wallace’s fish parable highlights the difficulty of awareness of one’s own habitat. All of us see the world through our own eyes with all kinds of unquestioned assumptions about our world. We assume that our view of things is the correct view of things largely because we’ve never been able to entertain any other view outside of our own perspective. It’s hard to rise above our own experiences to analyze our world objectively. We are the fish unaware that we’re even in water.

For as long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve listened to fellow believers express frustration over perceived failure at praying.

So, why is prayer so hard? I believe there are two sets of answers to this question. First, there are reasons that are connected to human weakness and sin—struggles shared by Christians in every generation. Second, there are reasons that are unique to our modern world. I believe there are unique aspects of modern life—unnoticed characteristics of the water we swim in—that particularly make prayer difficult.

In every age, prayer is hard because human beings are prideful and self-dependent. The very essence of saving faith is the humble acknowledgement that we need God to do what we could never do on our own. John Calvin called prayer “the chief exercise of faith.” In other words, when we are depending on Christ through faith, we will express that dependent faith through prayer. When we are prayerless, it often means we are living in pride. Prayerless people are not living by faith.

But sometimes prayerlessness is caused by another reality that plagues our kind: distraction. Have you ever sat down to pray only to immediately experience the rush of unwanted thoughts to your mind? Have you ever struggled to pray because, like Martha in Luke 10:41, you are “anxious and troubled about many things”? These are not unique problems; human beings have always struggled with busy lives and busy hearts.

Prayer has always been hard, but our modern world presents some unique challenges. The Bible often warns against “the world” (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15; Romans 12:2). The “world” in this context refers to culture and society in rebellion to God. Biblical scholar G.K. Beale defines “worldliness” as “whatever any culture does to make sin seem normal and righteousness to be strange.” Our world is currently organized to make prayer feel strange.

C.S. Lewis often pointed to a transformation in outlook that occurred sometime in the nineteenth century that he called the “mechanization of the world picture.” Before the age of the machine, western thought perceived the world as a cosmic cathedral, reflecting truth about God into the world. Today, we see the world as a machine, completely closed off from anything outside of the system. Experiences with the natural world no longer reflect anything from beyond; they are merely natural processes to be studied and mastered for human flourishing.

How does this impact our prayer habits? When there’s no mystery beyond, no transcendence—when everything we need can be located within the system—prayer feels pointless. Think about a typical day in the life of a typical modern adult. You wake up probably to an iPhone’s alarm and are immediately sucked into the newsfeed of your social media platform of choice. You will spend roughly half of your conscious day staring at a screen of some sort, based on U.S. averages. Your whole life will revolve around technological marvels that bear witness to human ingenuity: energy efficient cars, steady-streams of media, interstates, buildings, and drive-thrus.

Everything we experience in the modern world points us, not to God, but to humanity. We never look beyond the physical world because everything we think we need can be located within it. Inside the machine, there’s no time for reflection. Every moment is filled with the next show, the next task, the next appointment, the next post. Our world conspires against quiet, reflection, and depth.

Within such a world, prayer seems superfluous, and unless we’re reading Bibles, we hardly even notice its absence. Why would we? How could we? We have everything we need. We’re so locked into modern life that even the thought of prayer seems strange.

Before we can resist the tide, we must notice we’re being moved by it. Next week, we will look at strategies for resistance.

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