How do you pray? How should you pray? If God knows everything, what’s the point? Jesus addresses these questions in Matthew chapter 6, and today I’d like to take some time to see what we can gather from his words. Last time we briefly walked through the greater context of the Gospel of Matthew. If you missed it, here it is.
Here’s something that might strike you as strange: in this passage prayer is hand in hand with helping the poor. Both are expressions of devotion to the Lord. One is external, one is internal. But both should be handled discreetly. Jesus warns the hypocrites, who want everyone to see them when they give or hear them when they pray. Jesus is clear on one thing here: “they have their reward in full.” They get what they want, but nothing more. They are noticed by people. Jesus goes on to warn against praying like the Gentiles. They pray with meaningless repetition, supposing that the abundance of words will cause them to be heard.
There is a glaring mistake that both of these parties make, and Jesus alludes to it with the following tantalizing remark: “So do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” We tend to focus in on the fact that he knows before we ask, and that puzzles us (with good reason). But I think Jesus is more concerned with the word “Father.” The mistake that both Hypocrite and Gentile make is that they turn prayer into a religious exercise with no mind for God’s concern for us. The hypocrite is most concerned with his prayers being heard by those around him. He thinks prayer is a show, and he wants people to see how great he is. The Gentile is most concerned with checking off a box. Prayer is a task, and he has to punch the clock. If he doesn’t pray enough, bad things will happen. So he wants to pray as much as possible, with no mind to the meaning of his words.
But Jesus is reminding both groups, prayer is communication with your Father. He cares for you, and he just wants to talk to you. He knows what your needs are. Gentile, he isn’t expecting a specific word count. Hypocrite, he isn’t asking you for a show. Child, he wants to speak to you. Stop fixating on what you think his expectations are and just relax. He’s your father. Talk to him.
This reminds me of Elijah and the Prophets of Ba’al (1st Kings 18:20-). The quick rundown is that Elijah is having a supernatural prayer battle with the Prophets of Ba’al. Both will call upon their deity to burn an offering. Elijah is feeling cocky, so he tells them to take their time. He even mocks them, suggesting that…well…that he’s using the bathroom (1st Kings 18:27). But notice the difference in prayer life here. The Prophets of Ba’al are many, and they dance around, screaming and cutting themselves trying to provoke a response from their deity. Elijah’s prayer? Almost short enough to tweet. But the length isn’t the issue. It’s the heart behind it. He doesn’t need to provoke his God. He doesn’t need to get his attention, or manipulate him. He just needs to ask.
Practically speaking, I know this isn’t easy. Honestly…on some level…this sucks. I wish God had a word count. I wish we could manipulate him. Why? Because then I could guarantee his action. If I had a formula for prayer…if I knew a specific prayer guaranteed God’s specific response 100% of the time…that would be so much easier. But that would make God a vending machine. That would take him out of the equation for the purposes of relationship. And ultimately that isn’t a good thing. It is better that we can relate to him as a being, rather than manipulate him like some cosmic system.
Think about your best friends in life. Think about those people you can spend time with and it doesn’t seem like time is even a factor. That doesn’t come immediately. It comes as you develop your relationship with them. And the same holds true with your relationship with God. And you can talk to him all the time. The infinite creator of the universe wants to interact with you…all the time. Let that sink in. You can enjoy his presence while you do some of the silliest things in the world. Be yourself with him, because he’s one of the few who wants that to happen…and he can handle it. Don’t worry about what other people think, like the hypocrite. Don’t worry about what you are “supposed to say” or how long you are “supposed to pray,” like the Gentile. Recognize that he’s with you as you read this. Pause for a moment, tell him hello…tell him about your day. Enjoy.