Today is one of those days when a number of things have pointed me towards what I have to say. As I’ve explained earlier several coming events in our churches life (Peterloo pop-up, Day of prayer for Britain and our Science and the Language of Prayer seminar series) relate to prayer. We had our 4th Sunday two weeks ago when we don’t feel compelled to use the lectionary but if we have found Luke’s memory of Jesus’ teaching about the Lord’s prayer. Seeing as we missed out on it then I thought we might pick up that theme today and spend some time thinking about prayer in general and the Lord’s Prayer in particular.
Although prayer is central to a fully Christian life, many Christians find prayer difficult. I remember a couple of months ago Philip ran a series of sessions on prayer after church. In advertising these he emphasised that they were intended for people who found prayer difficult. Having marketed the sessions this way we found them to be better attended than any study group either of us can remember.
I don’t think the difficulty comes form one single issue, there are multiple reasons. Some people lack confidence that they are praying properly (whatever that is). Others may wonder how sensible it is to ask God to intervene in a world that we know functions according to well established scientific laws? Others may have felt that their prayers have gone unanswered in the past? Others may find that they get little out of prayer and it becomes a chore?
So what do we make of Jesus teaching on prayer? Well there is a riddle here, particularly in relation to the Lord’s Prayer. The riddle is that when we read Matthew and Luke’s different accounts of what Jesus taught when he introduced people to the Lord’s prayer we appear to get very different advice on how to pray.
Matthew places Jesus’ teaching of Lord’s prayer within the Sermon on the Mount and leads into it with the sentence:
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that 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.
There is Certain sense in this. If we believe that God knows everything then what is the point of spending a long time explaining a situation to Him? Indeed what is the point of telling him about the situation at all? In the light of this autumn’s prayer events – what is the point of a group of Christian’s travelling to London to tell God about the problems that face Britain? Surely God already knows that Britain is going through a trying time?
Luke remember Jesus introducing the Lord’s Prayer at a private conversation amongst the disciples after they had watched him praying himself. Jesus continues afterwards with the parable that I retold to the children earlier and the message could hardly be more different to Matthew’s:
I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
He then goes onto the famous passage on which our hymn was based about “ask and it shall be given unto you”. This teaching is mirrored in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) which Luke relates a little later in his gospel. A widow comes and pesters a judge repeatedly until he finally gives in and grants her the judgement she is after.
But if you think about it, Matthew and Luke appear to be saying quite different things. Matthew seems to be saying keep you prayers simple and short, because God already knows what you want, and Luke seems to be saying the opposite, keep on reminding God of your prayers and he will award your persistence. How do we make sense of this riddle?
I think the starting point is to look at the Lord’s prayer itself. So often when we talk about prayer, and particularly whether it works or not, we focus on those prayers when we ask God to do something for us. We pray for God to reconcile our country or to heal someone we know who is ill or to rectify a situation is some remote part of the world. These are our prayers of petition and intercession, petition if we are praying for something for ourselves and intercession if we are praying for other people.
Yet these types of prayer are entirely absent from the Lord’s prayer. The closest the Jesus comes in the Lord’s prayer to prayers of petition or intercession is “Give us this day our daily bread”, which is fairly basic request for minimal sustenance. Nowhere else is there any suggestion that we should be praying that God will do what we want him to do. There is absolutely no suggestion that when we pray to God we should offer him a long list of people or situations in the expectation that he should intervene and sort them out.
What we do have is a clear injunction to listen to what God wants
“The kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.
Prayer as presented in the Lord’s Prayer is not fundamentally about us telling God what we want – it is about us listening to what God wants. Perhaps we can personalise this a little further – it is about listening to what God wants us to do. Once we have understood his purpose then we also stand a possibility of understanding the part he wants us to play in bringing that purpose about.
With this understanding of prayer, the teaching of Matthew and Luke can make sense together. Matthew says do not use long prayers because God already knows what you want. Of course God knows what you want, what is important however is you finding out what God wants. You shouldn’t use lots of words because the main point of prayer is not you telling God what he should do, but you listening to God telling you what you should do.
Viewing prayer like this also alters how we view Luke’s call for persistence. If the aim of prayer is to understand what God wants rather than persuading him to do what we want then the result of persistence is not to persuade him to change his mind, but for us to eventually understand what it is that he wants. Think about that phrase, “seek and ye shall find”. Thinking about making a real effort to find something. If we persist in our search we don’t expect to change the thing we are looking for. If we are looking for an apple we don’t, by searching persistently, expect to find an orange. What we expect to do is to increase the probability of finding the apple. What will be given to us, if we ask persistently enough is a vision of what God requires of us. If we gather in London, physically or virtually, to pray for this country, our prayer is not to persuade God to implement our vision of what will bring healing to our nation, it is to discern God’s vision of what will bring that about and act accordingly.
In case we have any doubts about prayer as a time for us to discover God’s will and the persistence that is required to do this, we need to move forwards in time to Jesus prayer in Gethsemane. Jesus knew by this time that adhering to God’s vision of the future was to live continue to live a life of truth and love which would inevitably lead to his execution by crucifixion. Despite this his prayer was not to be rescued but to have the strength to persist.
“Yet not my will but thy will be done”.
Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42, Matthew 26:39&42
I want to add on a note about Jesus teaching on prayer as recorded in John’s gospel and specifically on the understanding that:
“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
If we are lazy then we take this just as a form of magic words, we assume that if we end our prayer by saying “we ask this in the name of Jesus” then we are in some way guaranteeing that our prayer will be granted. If we’re honest, most of us will recognise that this doesn’t work. How often have each of us asked for something in prayer in Jesus name only to find that nothing changes.
Praying in Jesus name is not just a form of words we add onto a prayer to guarantee its success. Praying in Jesus name is a test of our prayer. Are we really praying for what Jesus wants or for what we want? It goes back to the Lord’s prayer, are we praying to do God’s will or for God to do our will? It is only if we are praying to align ourselves with God’s will, to pray in Jesus name that our prayers have any chance of success.
So what does this mean practically?
Prayer is a conversation and a two-way conversation. It’s not just about telling God what we want – it’s about listening to god telling us what he wants.
We need space to listen. If we are having a conversation with someone who is our equal then we should expect to spend at least as much time listening as speaking. If we are having a conversation with someone who is wiser or more knowledgeable than us, then it is only sensible to spend more time listening than talking. With God we should spend far more time listening than talking.
In listening we need to become aware of how God speaks to us. I’ve spoken to many people who experience prayer just like a conversation with a friend when they hear an almost audible voice. My experience of prayer is more like listening to a voice deep down within myself, a nagging of my own conscience. Listen for how God is speaking to you, and acknowledge his voice however you hear it.
But we also need persistence in that listening. It might be that the first time we listen we cannot hear God responding, or that we do hear but it doesn’t make sense, or that it does make sense but we are not comfortable in what it seems to be requiring of us. The chances are that the more difficult the situation we are praying about the more persistent we will have to be to discern God’ will. God will answer, if we invest enough time in listening.
Finally, if prayer is ultimately about listening to how we can do God’s will, then we should spend more time praying about those issues that we can do something about effectively than those that are remote form us. We should never forget people who are struggling and desperate on the other side of the world, or even this nation, but our prayers to bring about God’s Kingdom are far more likely to be effective if they are about situations in which we have some personal involvement and agency. If you only have a limited time for prayer, and everyone does, then it only makes sense to focus those prayers on people and situations that are close to you.
So let’s pray Biblically:
- Let’s limit the words we use in order that we can listen to God.
- Let’s pray persistently to ensure that we hear God’s will and act upon it.
- Let’s test those prayers to ensure that they are offered and recieved in Jesus’ name and not our own.
- Let’s focus our prayers on situations where we are likely to be most effective in working in order that God’s Kingdom comes, that His will is done, on earth as it is in Heaven