How to Reconstruct a Broken Prayer Life

Judith Greenberg, Ph.D., is not an evangelical. In fact, she is not even a Christian. She claims to be an atheist. Professor Greenberg studied at Yale and described herself as “a New York Upper West Side liberal, [and] a firm believer in science and rationality.” A nagging sense of what she calls “survivors’ guilt,” however, and the pain of increasingly bad news has left her asking questions about prayer. She admits, “I still call out to God as my first reaction to hearing bad news. ‘No, please don’t let it be so,’ I beg.”

Kie Bowman

Evangelicals might have questions about Dr. Greenberg’s prayers, but we cannot dismiss the fact that she prays. In fact, she is a part of the unusual, and apparently growing, phenomenon of atheists who pray. Reportedly, the number of praying atheists may be as large as 14 percent. 

People who do not believe God exists, yet pray to Him, present a strange and inconsistent contradiction. Still, the fact that they pray may suggest something about the longing of the soul. 

Obviously, there is a tremendous difference between the prayers of a person who denies the existence of God and the relationship-based prayers of God’s people. How much more should God’s people talk to their Father.

As the old saying goes, “Religion is man’s search for God. Christianity is God’s search for man.” As believers, even if we have strayed far from God for a season, it remains possible to return to God through prayer. In fact, there is no way to return to God without prayer. 

We need to pray, even if our spiritual lives are inconsistent, outdated, or erratic. So, how do you or someone you’re helping reconstruct your prayer life? 

Praying after sin

David’s immorality with Bathsheba, his abuse of power, the attempted coverup, and the targeted killing of her husband was reprehensible then and would be judged even more harshly today (2 Samuel 11:1-24). David’s life is the dramatic story of a man deeply devoted to God with exemplary displays of character at times, coupled with a spectacular moral crash that went from bad to worse. How did he recover?

In Psalm 51, David repented of all the sin related to the tragic series of actions with Bathsheba. The entire Psalm is a prayer of confession. He said, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (v. 2). Even if the details of our sin do not resemble David’s, which of us cannot relate to the Israeli king’s heartfelt repentance? Taking note of the familiarity of David’s repentance, for instance, Ethan Collins observed, “The confession of David in Psalm 51 is so deeply personal that reading it can feel like eavesdropping. One must either join in contrition or stop reading.”

Each of us, like King David, can find restoration with God after sin and spiritual failure through deep, personal confession and repentance expressed through honest prayer. 

Praying after disappointment

Everybody wants God to answer their prayers. But few want that answer to be “no.” It’s been said that “the only thing that lies outside the power of prayer, is that which lies outside the will of God.” 

In another example of reconstructing prayer from King David’s life, we learn about prayer’s power after we face harsh disappointment. David was at the zenith of his career. His military victories were legendary in Israel. His long-term vision included building a temple for God. Nathan the prophet, his closest religious advisor, was caught up in “David-mania” and encouraged the young king to gather the materials, recruit the workers, and build the temple! 

But God said, “No.” God had other and bigger plans. It was a crushing disappointment for David to learn that God would never allow him to build a temple or fulfill his personal desire to serve God in that way. Yet David’s response to God’s refusal is a lesson for all of us who have chased a dream that will never be realized or pursued an ambition that has led to nowhere.

The Scripture says, “Then King David went in and sat before the LORD and said, ‘Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?’” (2 Samuel 7:18). The phrase, “Then King David went in and sat before the LORD,” is striking in its humility and spiritual depth. A proud king might have been defiant. David, however, went and “sat before the Lord.” This is a description of David’s desire to worship in the presence of God through humble prayer. Instead of arguing with God about what God would not allow him to have, David prayerfully thanked God for what he had already received but did not deserve. 

All of us at some time will face disappointment. Billy Graham once said, “Only in heaven will we be free of all disappointments and failures.” 

In many lives, the disappointment seems almost unbearable. The winds of circumstance shift and become headwinds of opposition. People we trust betray us. Dreams we worked hard to achieve don’t work out as planned. When any of that happens, we will have choices. Will disappointment drive us away from God? Or will disappointment become a catalyst for us to seek the presence of God in prayer? 

Whether it’s sin, disappointment, or something else, prayer can be reconstructed if we believe that through prayer we reconnect with God. 

— Kie Bowman is senior pastor emeritus of Hyde Park Baptist Church and The Quarries Church in Austin, Texas, and the SBC National Director of Prayer. This article first appeared in Baptist Press Toolbox.