Rabbinic tradition offers the perspective that prayer is a process… one of asking God to make his will our will.
We too often get this perspective exactly backwards. In our self-centered and instantly gratifying ways, prayer becomes a process of asking God to make our will his will.
On our journey of faith, it’s the transforming power of the Holy Spirit through Christian discipleship that clarifies our perspective and sharpens our vision of what God wants to do in us and through us for his greater glory and our good.
Gracious God, we are grateful for access to you that you grant us through your Son our Savior. He is our priest, our advocate, our intercessor, our master, our teacher, our pattern, our Lord. He taught us a new way to pray, coming to you and calling on you – his Father – as our Father. In this new intimacy, we do not presume familiarity, but we find security, identity, and destiny in your warm embrace. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.
I’d say that the most difficult habit to sustain in Christian living is a regular prayer life. Everything seems to get in the way, and by the end of a day, so many things have crowded and crammed themselves into my moments, that prayer becomes an afterthought. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, as if there were some arbitrary standard of involvement of which I’ve once again fallen seriously short.
More often – and I believe this is more consistent with God’s own hopes for us – I feel shortchanged for having spent too little time praying. (“Gee, I could’ve had a V-8” sort of response.) There’s something in the moments of private prayer that’s different than time spent in study, or corporate worship, or fellowship, or service.
Ideally, these elements of Christian discipleship and growth interface, coalesce, cross-pollinate and work in tandem. But there’s something about the existential moments of prayer that offer unique glimpses through the window between earth and heaven. I believe God’s designed it to be this way.
Now, there are all kinds of prayers. No one size fits all. I think of author Anne Lamott’s two favorite missiles, “Help me! Help me! Help me!” and “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” These actually may be closer to our everyday experience than we’d care to admit.
I think of Presbyterian pastor and preacher Donald Grey Barnhouse’s pre-meal graces, “Lord, we thank you for your many blessings to us each day, for this wonderful meal, particularly for the roast beef and mashed potatoes, and not quite so much for the Brussels sprouts.”
I think of Christian communicator and educator Howard Hendricks, who was deeply involved in men’s ministries over the years, telling of a riveting exchange during an early morning small group Bible Study. When it came time for prayer, each one around the circle in succession began to pray in a way that sounded a little too much like a graduate seminar in systematic theology, until it came to the new guy in the group.
After a lengthy, awkward, sweaty-collar pause, he began, haltingly, “Lord…this is Sam… I’m the one who came to know you last week…I don’t really know how to do this… I just want you to know how lost I was before last week…and how grateful I am that you found me.” Professor Hendricks said that in that thunderstruck moment, a room full of seasoned, even “professional” pray-ers, wanted to hide their fat heads under the table.
Yes, there are all kinds of prayers. But there’s a pattern for praying offered to us by our Lord himself, in Matthew 6.
Before he offers the disciples this pattern, Jesus cautions us about two things: Hypocrisy and insincerity.
Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
What do we think Jesus is saying here? I’d suggest two things.
Prayer has an audience of one. Others may hear it. They may be moved by it. They may even enter into it. But they don’t ultimately hear it. Prayers offered to be impressive to others run the risk of not making it past the ceiling tiles.
Prayer moves from the human heart to God’s ear. It’s intelligent, but not necessarily intellectual. It’s emotional, but not necessarily ecstatic. It’s personal, yet anything but proud. At best it comes from that center point in each of us where heart, soul, mind and strength interplay and meld. It’s authentic. It’s honest. It’s direct.
I’d make a third observation based on what Jesus says next.
There’s nothing in our prayers that surprises God. What does Jesus say? “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
The eyes of the Lord range throughout the entire earth to strengthen those whose heart is true to him.
He who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived,what God has prepared for those who love him.
God is omniscient, omnipresent, sovereign, able, willing, wise, and loving. The impressive thing about being God is not needing a lot of help. He knows what we need.
There’s far more to unpack in Jesus’ model prayer than is possible in these short comments, but I do believe that in his pattern we can discern a few things that help keep all the theology in clear context.
First, there’s acknowledgment that God is God and we’re not. God is holy, and God is wholly other than us. Yet God is known to us because he’s revealed his name. God is transcendent in being, in power, and in authority. Yet, explicitly in Jesus’ prayer, God is Father and, implicitly, God is immanent and intimate to us, available in more depth and more ways than we even imagine.
Second, there’s attitude based on such acknowledgment: attitude of creature to creator, subject to sovereign, and lesser to greater, but, all the while, child to loving parent.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on us; he remembers our frame, that we are only dust.
What one of you does not want to give good gifts to your children?
Sometimes we just can’t get our minds wrapped around the idea of intimate relationship with God. It’s as if, when we pray, we recoil from fear that God will say, “Oh, it’s Joe, Oh, it’s Jane. Quick, Gabriel, go get the whip!”
Nothing could be farther from the truth! The attitude of Jesus’ prayer is intimate and secure.
Third, there’s adjustment. Recognizing our dependence on God is not a sign of weakness, but an indication we know where our strength truly lies.
It’s like the Dad watching his little boy trying to lift a far too heavy stone.
“Are you using all you strength, son? Are you sure that you’re using all your strength? Do you remember that my strength is also yours if you want it.”
Recognizing our sin before God and need of forgiveness doesn’t send us cowering away from a ruthless, vengeful deity. Rather, it compels us to trust God’s grace as the only way to receive the blessing of God’s holiness. Recognizing our place as forgiven children of God doesn’t drive us to haughty comparisons with others. Instead, it calls us to offer forgiveness even as we’ve freely received it.
Must all our prayers closely follow Jesus’ pattern to be legitimate petitions that reach heaven’s throne? No. But acknowledgement of our complete need before God and God’s complete provision for us brings us thirsty to the well of living waters. An attitude of child to Father assures us that we’ll receive, perhaps not all we ask for, but everything we need. Adjustments we make in the way we treat each other demonstrate our recognition of just how far God came to redeem and rescue us.
Prayer then becomes less a way to motivate or manipulate God, less a way to bang on the door of heaven, and more a process of accepting God’s gracious embrace in Christ; of acknowledging that our dependence on God isn’t partial, but total; all leading to a life of actively gracing others with the same favor we’ve freely received.
Through prayer as Jesus taught us to pray, we draw closer and closer to God, assuming a posture that the rabbis astutely recognized as fundamental: His will our own.