From chapter 12 of Prayer – does it make any difference? by Philip Yancey, published by Hodder & Stoughton 2006.
Daniel Yankelovich, an astute observer of social trends, points to a cultural shift that occurred in the West in the 1970s. Before then, society valued self-denial or ‘deferred gratification.’ Spouses sacrificed, even if it meant holding two jobs and accepting transfers to other cities, in pursuit of long-term goals. Parents trapped in an unsatisfying marriage stayed together for the sake of the children. In the 1970s the rules changed: the self-denial ethic morphed into the self-fulfilment ethic. We listen to our emotional needs and want them fulfilled now, without sacrifice, without waiting. We buy whatever we want on credit and jettison anything that proves complicated or irksome (like a troublesome marriage, for instance).
Under the new rules prayer loses out. It requires discipline, involves persevering through periods of darkness and dryness, and its results are difficult to measure. Rarely does it satisfy emotional cravings right away.
Indeed, the New Testament presents prayer as a weapon in a prolonged struggle. Jesus’ parable on prayer show a widow pestering a judge and a man pounding on his neighbour’s door. After painting a picture of the Christian as a soldier fitted out with the ‘full armour of God,’ Paul gives four direct commands to pray. Elsewhere, Paul urges his protégé Timothy to endure hardship like a soldier, to toil like a farmer, to compete like an athlete.
I have neither farmed nor served in the military but for thirty years I have been a runner, often entering charity races. I remember well how it all started. I met a young man named Peter Jenkins at a writers’ conference as he was working on the book A Walk Across America, which later became a national bestseller. As he recounted some of his adventures on a long walk across the country, he said, ‘I get tired of these reporters flying down from New York, renting a car, then driving out to meet me. They hit the electric window button of their air-conditioned car, lean out, and ask, ‘So, Peter, what’s it like to walk across America?’ I’d like a reporter to walk with me for a while!’ Without thinking, I volunteered. [Now,] my body has become so accustomed to [exercise] that, if I have to skip a few days because of injury or illness, I feel edgy and restless.
As with physical exercise, much of the benefit of prayer comes as a result of consistency, the simple act of showing up. The writer Nancy Mairs says she attends church in the same spirit in which a writer goes to her desk every morning, so that if an idea comes along she’ll be there to receive it. I approach prayer the same way. Many days I would be hard-pressed to describe a direct benefit. I keep on, though whether it feels as if I am profiting or not. I show up in the hope of getting to know God better, and perhaps hearing from God in ways accessible only through quiet and solitude.