Prayer is a mystery to me but not to Jesus. He knows what prayer is and how to do it. He knows everything there is to know about prayer. Our understanding of prayer is nothing in comparison to His. He is the teacher, we are the kindergarten students – maybe not even that developed – more like infants learning to walk.
I don’t feel worthy to even comment on His teaching about prayer. Almost nothing in being a Christian makes me curl up in a fetal position in the corner of my room like prayer. Yet, prayer entices me to wake up every day and boldly come into God’s presence. It haunts me hourly, inviting me to experience God in every activity and scene. It gnaws at my heart wounding it with God’s love. It strangely asks me to ascend to the heights of heaven while inviting me to descend to the depths of humility and nothingness. I cannot fathom the abyss of mystery in knowing God in prayer.
Yet, Jesus gives us simple and effective instructions about how to pray. Nothing less can be done but to follow His instructions. What other recourse do we have? Are we smarter or wiser than Jesus?
Of course, not. Even so, I lived most of my Christian life ignoring what Jesus taught about prayer. Apparently, in my spiritual puniness, I thought I knew better. Could I have been more blind?
Our ways are not His ways. We need His ways.
In Matthew and Luke are two portions of scripture where Jesus majors on prayer.
From Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ teaching on prayer (Matthew 6.5-15) we learn:
1. Where to pray: Secret (5-6)
Warning: Hypocrite alert! Don’t pray before others in order to be seen. The “atta boys” you receive from others for your wonderful prayer is all you get.
Do you ever get a feeling of satisfaction after you pray in public? Are you concerned with what others think when you pray in a group? There’s nothing wrong with praying in public or in a group unless you do it in order to be seen; unless you do it to feed your ego – “I’m attending the prayer meeting so others will think more highly of me.”
Does it bother you that your public prayers are often a cloak for self-centeredness?
If so, follow Jesus’ instruction (and example) and learn to pray to the Father in a secret place.
- “go into your room” – have a place to pray
- “shut the door” – find solitude by hiding yourself away from others
- “pray to your Father who is in secret” – commune in family relationship since the Father is not in a public place but is in a secret place. In other words, join Him where He is not where you are. This kind of prayer is primarily about the Father, not you. However, your life will be transformed as you commune with the Father.
- “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” – The Father will be your reward when you pray like this. You won’t need the accolades of others or the feelings of accomplishment. Being with the Father will be enough.
2. What to pray: Words (7-8)
Warning: Don’t pray like a non-Jew. Don’t pray before others to be heard. We often repeat the same words in our “spontaneous” prayers. (Ok. I can’t help myself. Click here to see this reality humorously presented.) Let’s be honest. There’s no greater merit to spontaneity than to set prayers. Where did we get the idea that making up sentences on the fly was more spiritual than saying prayers written by others? Again, there’s nothing wrong with spontaneous prayers. But, don’t discount set, written words since that’s what Jesus gives us.
Follow Jesus’ instruction (and example) and learn to pray saying the words often designated, the Lord’s Prayer.
- Use words/phrases which are substantive and meaningful (7a) – “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do”
- Use words/phrases which are few and simple (7b) – “for they think they will be heard for their many words”
- Check your motivation – “Do not be like them [Gentiles] for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” – In prayer, are we trusting our”performance” for answers or are we trusting God’s providence? He knows what we need.
So, we can pray these words trusting God in all things and confident in Jesus’ instructions…
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed by your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from [the] evil [one].
3. Why pray: Forgiveness (14-15)
Forgiveness entails releasing our expectations and control of others (into the hands of the Father). We release the bitterness from our hearts towards another person for what they have done. We lay aside our grudge, accusations, pain, and bitterness, participating in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Having recently dealt with forgiving Eric, I now realize I had expectations of him which he did not (or could not) meet. Then I held against him his inability to meet them. He missed the mark designed by me. He violated my expectations. I had to come to the point of seeing that my role was to forgive not rationalize why I should not.
Since Jesus makes such a big deal about forgiveness in His Prayer and at the end of it, I wonder if there’s more about connecting prayer with forgiving others than we realize. We like to dwell so much on God forgiving us. Have we diminished our mandate to forgive as He has? (Ephesians 4.32)
Here’s how serious Jesus takes forgiveness…
For if you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
We may not understand all this statement means. But one thing is clear, we better forgive when we are hurt, slighted, violated, treated poorly, betrayed, or bullied. The consequences of withholding forgiveness are immense.
From Luke’s recording of Jesus’ teaching on prayer (Luke 11.1-13), we learn:
4. How to pray: Relentlessly, shamelessly, ruthlessly, boldly even in ignorance (5-8) (“shameless audacity” NIV) (there is not one word only to translate the Greek word in English).
In recognition of one’s great need, prayer can take on an unreasonableness that Jesus seems to address here.
Applied to the Lord’s Prayer which precedes this story, we might say that praying for God’s kingdom to be clearly disclosed right now is quite bold and perhaps unreasonable. Forgiving everyone who is indebted to us might fit into the same classification. Yet, this is how Jesus wants us to pray.
Recall many of the prayers recorded in scripture. Most of them are outrageous – spare a nation from destruction (Abraham), for the sun to stand still (Joshua), let this cup pass from me & Father forgive for they know not (Jesus), be filled with all the fullness of God (Paul), and many more!
The Lord’s Prayer is also “shamelessly audacious.”
5. Outcome of prayer: Results (9-10)
Asking results in receiving…seeking results in finding…knocking results in opening. We need to keep at it. Be relentless in your praying the Lord’s Prayer and other prayers that fit Jesus’ criteria.
6. Good gift of prayer: Holy Spirit (11-13) received and participated in.
This statement seems to smack up against the teaching that the Holy Spirit permanently indwells the believer. However, each of these – bread, fish, eggs – are images of nourishing, life-giving gifts which symbolize the Holy Spirit.
Our role is to be persistent in our prayers for what is good resting in the Father’s mercy and love for us which is always good.
The stamina needed to pray like Jesus teaches us is experienced over time. Start where you are (and are able) and develop a greater understanding of prayer as communion with God week after week.
- Find a place of solitude and pray to God in secret.
- Always include the Lord’s Prayer genuinely spoken from your heart.
- Deal with hindrances to your prayer life like unforgiveness.
- Persistently pray with shameless audacity for what is good. Remember, the items in the Lord’s Prayer are all good.
- Be open to receive what the Father gives you (or whatever He chooses to do).
It’s tempting to make prayer more complicated than it is. Follow Jesus’ instructions related to the Lord’s Prayer and over time you’ll learn prayer as it was meant to be.
It’s also tempting to give up on prayer because it’s a struggle. You will struggle less when you simply follow Jesus’ instructions. Give it a try. If the struggle continues, embrace it. You grow stronger in the challenge when you keep at it.
Never forget, prayer is primarily about communing with God. It’s about knowing/experiencing God. The Lord’s Prayer has been given to us to help us know God and commune with Him.