And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
Prayer is fundamental to the Christian experience. According to the most recent Pew Study, 79% of evangelical Christians pray every day. In fact, 55% of all Americans do. 63% of Christians said that praying regularly is central to their Christian identity, and more than half say that they rely on prayer when making major life decisions.
But you know what the Pew survey didn’t determine? It didn’t determine which percentage of believers have a flourishing prayer life. It didn’t ask if prayer was personally meaningful to them.
I’m right there. I’m embarrassed to admit that I often repeat the same wheel-rut prayers over and over again. I listen to myself pray and I realize that most of what I’m expressing is a laundry list of tasks God could complete that would make my life more pleasant. I have major problems concentrating, and sometimes the harder that I try to concentrate, the more frustrated I become.
To top it all off, I can play the comparison game. I suspect that everybody else is better at praying than I am. They’re more committed to it, more disciplined about it. That sets off the guilt-trip alarms. The other day I came across a report from the life of Martin Luther that said he would get up every morning at 3 AM and pray for three hours straight.
Except when he was really busy. Then he would spend five hours in prayer. C’mon, man.
When it comes to prayer, lots of people feel as if they are failing. Are they right? Let’s review what Jesus says about prayer.
In both Matthew 6 and Luke 11, Christ teaches what we call The Lord’s Prayer. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus offers it as a tool for a group of disciples who ask him to teach them how to pray.
Check this out: If you ever wondered what Jesus thinks the best kinds of prayer are, wonder no more. Because in these two texts we have the answer. This is what Jesus desires. (I think it’s cool to remember that this is the answer of the one who himself answers the prayers! Here’s the best way to talk with me, Jesus says.)
As I read and receive this teaching, three key ideas stick out. If you’re going through a dry spell in your prayer life, you might want to make note of these. I think they can refresh and invigorate your prayer life.
Jesus begins with posture. Pray privately, he teaches: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Pray privately. Now, does this mean that you can never pray out loud or in front of others? Does this mean that you are off the hook when it’s your turn at Sunday dinner?
Nice try. What Jesus is really saying is that the measuring stick for how you are doing in your prayer life is not how you pray when people are watching. It’s what happens when it’s just you and God alone. One on one.
In lots of his teachings, Jesus names and unmasks the practice of “strategic righteousness”. Jesus marked it long before Nietzsche wrote about it: People can manipulate religious practice in order to gain attention; and through that attention, to gain power.
And Jesus isn’t saying it’s ineffective toward that end. It’s very effective, actually. Jesus says that people who pray with megaphones get kudos. They get the admiration of their peers. But, he says, that’s all they get. Their prayers get them nowhere with God. Because really, their prayers weren’t addressed to God in the first place.
Jesus says that the only person who can tell you if you are really praying well is you. Because you’re the only one who knows what your real prayers to God are really like.
Pray in your closet. Alone. That’s how you refresh your prayer life. By getting together with God in private.
Key number two: Pray more simply.
Here comes another contrast. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
The second key Jesus teaches is that it’s better to pray simply and sincerely than it is to prattle on with long and erudite words and genteel terms and urbane nouns and sophic themes and ostentatious soliloquies and high-brow linguistic acrobatics and do you see what I did there?
In verses 8-9, Jesus gives us a direct window into the way that ancient pagan people prayed to their gods. They prayed with lots of murmuring, repetition, and nonsense phrases.
Why was this? It’s because in the ancient world, many people had a very different understanding of how you would get the attention of a god. Gods were flighty and unpredictable. They were always on emotional rollercoasters and you probably had as good a chance of offending them by your prayer as you did of gaining their favor. So prayer meant doing whatever it took to get their attention and win their favor. Incantations, repetitions, whatever. Remember the prophets of the false God Baal on Mount Carmel? These guys called out to Baal hour after hour, chanting, dancing, even cutting themselves with swords and spears in an attempt to get the attention of their god.
Many ancient gods were so capricious that they required long and convoluted exordiums before they’d listen. A number of scholars have pointed out how this was a reflection of how common people used to address persons of power. The early church historian Eusebius records for us the official title of one of the later Roman Caesars. This was how you’d address him:
EMPEROR CÆSAR GALERIUS VALERIUS MAXIMIANUS, INVICTUS, AUGUSTUS, PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, GERMANICUS MAXIMUS, ÆGYPTIACUS MAXIMUS, THEBAICUS MAXIMUS, SARMATICUS MAXIMUS, THE FIFTH TIME, PERSICUS MAXIMUS, CARPICUS MAXIMUS, THE SECOND TIME, ARMENIACUS MAXIMUS, THE SIXTH TIME, MEDICUS MAXIMUS, ADIABENICUS MAXIMUS, TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE 20 . EMPEROR 19. CONSUL 8. FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY, PROCONSUL: AND, EMPEROR CÆSAR FLAVIUS VALERIUS CONSTANTINUS, PIUS, FELIX, INVICTUS, AUGUSTUS; PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE V. EMPEROR V. CONSUL, FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY, PROCONSUL: ALSO, EMPEROR CÆSAR VALERIUS LICINIANUS, PIUS, FELIX, INVICTUS, AUGUSTUS; PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE IV. EMPEROR III. CONSUL, FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY, PROCONSUL.
That’s what their leaders had. We have “Trump”.
Could you imagine if you needed to address God that way in order to get his attention? Most ineffable regent of the galaxy; undying potentate of the past, present and future, noblest of self-sufficient hosts. On and on and on. Now, that language has a purpose – it actually sounds a lot like one of my favorite hymns, Immortal Invisible, God only Wise – but it’s not required in order to have a meaningful prayer with God. He hears and understands the simplest of prayers. Our Father. Daddy.
Once when I asked friends of mine to recall the most memorable prayers of their children, I received this as a reply:
When our oldest daughter was a toddler, we had taught her to say “Lord bless this food and drink for Jesus sake, Amen.” She would very proudly say her little prayer before mealtime. After some time, I started to notice something didn’t sound quite right about the ending of her prayer. After spending some time listening very carefully to her little toddler voice, I suddenly realized instead of saying “for Jesus sake”, she was saying “piece of cake, Amen.”
Jesus says, when you pray, talk to your Daddy.
Trusting that God knows just what we need is the final key to understand. Jesus teaches his disciples to Pray into God’s Will.
The Lord’s Prayer ends with an expression of our human needs: Give us this day our daily bread. Grant to us forgiveness. Help us not to fall into temptation. Deliver us. We call these “petitions”.
And we’re absolutely to ask for these things, Jesus says. God loves to bless his children with what they need.
But we are first to inspect the condition of our hearts. According to Jesus, we should make our requests only after we pray that God’s will be done.
Do you see what that does? That totally reframes how we offer prayers of petition and how we accept God’s response to them. We are children who ask God to do what’s best for us. We admit that he knows more than we know.
We’re kids in the kingdom, and kids don’t always understand how everything works. In many cases, they don’t even know what to ask for.
What happens with a kid, doe-eyed and sincere, asks that she be able to play with a transistor radio while she’s taking a bath? You say no; she gets mad.
How often might our prayer life be like this? We get frustrated because it seems like God isn’t listening. In reality, God is responding as one who knows that we’re not asking for the right things.
Think of the joy, the release, in praying God, I know that no matter how you will answer these requests your will is going to be done, and that your will is the best possible outcome for me. If you earnestly pray that, and you earnestly want that, then so much of what frustrates you in prayer can be transformed into gratitude for God’s will being accomplished. It’s amazing.
The book The Prayer that Spans the World is a collection of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer that German pastor and philosopher Helmut Thielicke preached in Stuttgart during the closing days of WWII. I was scanning Thielicke’s sermon on “Thy Will Be Done” when I was floored by an asterisk about three sentences into the message:
The asterisk notes that at this point, the sermon was interrupted by air attack sirens and that shortly thereafter, the church in which Thielicke was preaching fell to Allied bombs.
Let that settle in for a second. Think about praying this prayer, and encouraging others to pray it, at this moment in history. Hitler is in charge. 142,000 bombs are falling in your city. 5000 people will die. How is it possible to trust God’s will at that time? Yet Thielicke finished that sermon, encouraging his people with these words:
Now perhaps we have come far enough along to catch the tone of joy and victory in the words: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Those words were not born of resignation and renunciation. It cannot be spoken by some-one who merely capitulates to a divine decree upon his life, from which there is no escape. No, there is something radiant and shining about it: This prayer, “Thy will be done,” is spoken to none other than the Father. And I can be sure that if I let this will be done and if I hide myself wholly in this will, this can only bring peace and fulfillment to my life. For it is the will of him who stands before me here in Jesus Christ and who has promised that with those who love God everything works for good, and that where his will rules everything comes out right in the end.”