“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
He was a kid who lived on the circle up the hill, and we were school buddies. With the heady maturity of fifth-grade boys, we walked to school, played sandlot football, shot baskets, and talked of things like rockets and outer space. So, I invited him to church. It was a soft lob because the invitation was to join my family on Wednesday evening for the weekly church dinner. We wouldn’t have to endure anything like Sunday School or even a church service. It would be easy.
There we stood in the fellowship hall, dutifully lined up as instructed. Then came the hard part and the surprise. The matronly kitchen commander stood at the front of the line, said for us to bow our heads, and began to bellow out a blessing so all in the hall could hear. My friend, un-bowed and un-muffled, looked at me and said, “What are we doing?” In what seemed like a whispered asthmatic shouting match, he asked louder, “Why is everyone putting their head down?” My instantaneous exhaled response was not an evangelical milestone. “Shhh,” I shout-whispered. “I’ll tell you later!” That was 55 years ago, and so far, there’s been no follow-up conversation.
Prayer is a mystery. Finite humans converse with an infinite God. And we enter that conversation precisely because that infinite God desires it. But it seems, if we’re honest about it, many of us never really outgrow our fifth-grade questions. What are we doing after all when we pray?
First and maybe most importantly, prayer is the life-long foundation of a relationship with the God of creation. We are created to be in relationship with God. Remember how the language of Genesis glows with the vocabulary of relational closeness? God breathed life into Adam, described almost as mouth-to-mouth incarnation. God sought to walk in the cool of the evening with His companion couple. Jesus was clear that prayer without relationship can often be more show and sham than a conversation among beings who love one another.
Secondly, prayer is a definitive manifestation of Christ-likeness. Jesus was a man of prayer. He prayed publicly and privately. He prayed at meals and at funerals and in the garden on the night in which he was betrayed. He prayed for the forgiveness of those who drove the nails into His flesh. There really is no scriptural way to accommodate a belief that we are growing up in Christ if we are not growing more and more into people of prayer.
The disciples certainly recognized the importance of prayer in Jesus’ life. And they specifically asked Him to teach them how to do it. Sadly, it seems many folks treat prayer as needful only in the public square of a church crowd or maybe only in a moment of crisis. Prayer can become a self-aggrandizing “look at me” proposition rather than a purposeful Christ-like response to God’s majesty and goodness.
Prayer is also a clear act of obedience. The Scriptures are filled with admonitions to pray in every and all circumstances. As far as our relationship with God goes, the first act of our obedience was to offer prayer to God as we confessed our need for Jesus. We prayed for God to do His redeeming work in us, to indwell us with His Spirit, and to make us new. That moment of our salvation was the beginning of a life intended to glorify God in part by our ongoing commitment to fervent and frequent prayer. Ongoing conversation is how all relationships stay fresh and continue to grow. Would it be any different in our single most important relationship?
We should also note that we are sometimes quick to say something like, “Prayer really works!” or “I believe in prayer.” And that’s where we run up against the true mystery of biblical praying. It is the Lord who works in and through the prayers of His people. And mostly, He works on His people in the context of their prayer lives. We are blessed as we prayerfully and joyfully live out the vicissitudes of our creatureliness.
So here’s a challenge. This week think of six people in your life for whom you will pray. Make it two family members, two acquaintances, and two folks you don’t really like very much. As you pray for yourself, pray for your six every day for a month. But be careful. Be careful to pray for them and not just about them. Pray for their good, for their faith, for their families. And don’t tell anyone. It’s a Christ-like thing to do, you know. And you can also know that while you pray for those six folks every day, the Lord Jesus loves you and is praying for you!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.