When you pray
Prayer is the universal cry of humankind. It is often a cry of desperation or anger or last resort. Down through the centuries and in every culture, prayer has been offered to gods, to demons, to nature, to the sun or moon. There is an inbuilt desire to communicate with that which is over all and greater than us. There is also an inbuilt reaction from people of faith and those who are not, to rage and blame God or the gods when things go wrong or there is tragedy. People pray when there is a crisis and for the most part when that crisis has passed, they don’t give God or prayer another thought.
Listen to this encouragement to prayer:
If you meet with difficulties at work, or suddenly doubt your abilities think of him (Stalin) and you will find the confidence you need. If you feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him (Stalin) and your work will go well. If you are seeking a correct decision, think of him (Stalin) and you will find that decision.
Who is the ‘him’ the writer is encouraging the reader to turn to? PP Well it was written in 1950 in the communist daily Pravda and the ‘him’ is Stalin. Even in atheist Stalinist Soviet Union, it was recognised that people need a higher power. Kim Jong Un is the higher power of North Korea, whose image is in every home and who is ‘worshipped’.
The AA programme operates on the basis that you connect with a ‘higher power’ in some way, in order to overcome addiction on a daily basis. Whilst people have rejected religion or faith in God, there is still a need to connect with something. Most people realise that we are not in control. And those that believe they are in control, or seek the power to control, soon become aware of their limitations as they are deposed or mortality hits or an accident occurs. People have prayed in order to manipulate God and people still pray in order to manipulate God. And some people think prayer is waste of time, because God is out there and we are here and he really isn’t interested.
If I was to take a straw poll of people’s opinions on prayer here this morning, I am sure that most would give me the ‘right’ response publicly, but privately be challenged, because their experience isn’t always what they hoped. Now I cannot address all the questions around prayer this morning, but I think our starting point is how we approach prayer and therefore how we approach God.
Prayer is part of the discipline of following Jesus, and we have a responsibility to learn to pray, simply because he did it and the assumption is that we would. Jesus is recorded as teaching about prayer in Matthew and Luke’s gospels and he begins ‘When you pray’. Prayer was central to his spiritual life: he wrestled with the evil one in prayer at the beginning of his ministry. He sought the Father in prayer in solitude early in the morning and agonised in prayer before he went to the cross. Prayer wasn’t an escape from the world, a means of manipulating God or a way of getting what he wanted. In prayer Jesus sought God’s will, God’s strength and relationship with his Father.
Let’s deal with what prayer is not to begin with. In Matthew, Jesus says that the kind of prayer we should not be pursuing is grandstanding:
…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.
When we pray it is not about performance, the sophistication of the words we use or the language we pray in. Jesus says that those who are performers in prayer have received their reward. Their prayer is not about God at all, but letting others know how spiritual they are. Jesus portrays an amusing image of those who give to the poor and announce it to the world earlier in the chapter. This he extends to prayer; and it is the opposite of the example Jesus lived: he didn’t set out to attract attention to himself but to point people to God the Father.
In order to understand this image, perhaps we should think about the Pharisee and the tax collector in prayer. One stands boldly and declares how wonderful he is; the other recognises his position before God and prays for mercy. The pharisee had successfully declared to the world how wonderful he was and how lucky God was to have him, the pharisee on his side. The tax collector successfully declared to God how much he needed God’s grace and forgiveness; he was the one who went home satisfied.
We also need to understand that God is not a slot machine: you put in the currency of prayer and out comes your particular choice of chocolate bar. And we aren’t more successful because we say a lot and babble away, either hoping that God will be impressed by our eloquence, or that we will wear God down by the constant flow of talk.
I think this brings us to the starting point for our prayer, which Jesus points to here: prayer is a relationship.
When you pray, say ‘Father…’
Here is the key – our relationship with our Father; and that is what transforms our prayer in church and our prayer meetings and our personal prayer. It is not about us; it is not about impressing God or others with our spiritual expressions and long prayers. it is about being in the presence of God whom Jesus teaches us is our Father. Now I understand that for some the imagery here is difficult, because their experience of a father figure has been negative. For some the word father equals and an abusive person, someone who put me down, someone I could never please. Perhaps it might be easier to think in terms of someone who loves us far more than we can imagine; whose love for us is completely selfless. It is the one who Paul says in Romans
God has shown us how much he loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us!
When we try to describe the actions of God and what God is like our language will always be limited. The Father we come to through Jesus is the one who saw the state people were in and took the initiative. This is the Father who has saved us in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus says, “This is how you should pray,” he also points to who the Father is: he is the God of heaven who is holy and whose name should be revered and honoured. We are coming to the one who brought order out of chaos in creation; who brought light out of darkness; who brought us all into being and who sustains the world each day. The psalmist says
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god
This is the holy one we come to in prayer and can call Father and know that we will be welcomed and loved, but he is the mighty and holy one and so there should be reverent awe in his presence. We are not coming to God in our pocket, but God who is over everything. Coming to him knowing that he is Lord of all, but also that we are accepted changes the relationship and changes our approach in prayer.
As we come to God in prayer, we will have our concerns, our issues our desires; but first of all comes God’s kingdom and God’s will and laying ourselves open to be used by him to that end. To desire the coming of God’s kingdom; to live out his purposes is to be active in prayer. In fact to put the kingdom of God first brings freedom and purpose: freedom from the concerns that often weigh us down; the passions that distract us; freedom from the pressures around that try to make us conform. We have a greater goal and a greater purpose in the service of kingdom. Prayer is the means by which we get things in perspective as we meet with God and meditate on him and his sacrificial love in Christ. it is the means by which begin to understand how we can play our part in his kingdom. Prayer is also important because it recognises that we are dependent upon God our Father. I think it is really difficult for us to understand the concept of dependency. Possibly most of us won’t until we are unwell and unable to do things for ourselves. Perhaps older people learn what it means to be dependent as they begin to need help in everyday matters and the world changes so rapidly around them. But for Jesus’ hearers the idea of asking God for their daily bread was a dependency that many could probably have related to because they lived a subsistence existence. If there was no work, there was no pay and nothing to feed your family with. If the fishing was unsuccessful there was nothing to sell and so you can’t provide. There are of course millions of people across the world who understand this prayer of dependence: give us today our daily bread.
Prayer should be important to us because we are dependent people. We are dependent upon God for existence; we are dependent upon God for forgiveness and deliverance from judgement. It is through the provision of God in Jesus Christ that we can come to God as Father; know the forgiveness of God for sin; have an eternal hope. Prayer should be important to us because through it we come in repentance and receive the gift of eternal life. In prayer we draw close to God our Saviour, seeking him and recognising that we need him.
Sometimes it is hard and difficult and we don’t know what to pray. Use the psalms to express every emotion and pray for those in distress. Use the openings of Paul’s letters to pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ. Use Galatians 5 which talks about the fruit of the Spirit to come in repentance; and pray for your own and the church’s spiritual growth. Read the Bible and just let it speak to you.
Is prayer important to me and to you? We can use words like ‘should be’ and ‘ought to be’; we can say ‘you should’ and ‘you ought’, but that will not get us anywhere apart from a guilt complex. The assumption of Jesus is that we would pray and it would be an integral part of our Christian life. Perhaps if we stop and ponder again on the greatness of God in creation; the wonder of God in new life and the graciousness of God in salvation words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ become obsolete, because prayer becomes our passion.