Some years ago, when I was leading a house-group at my local Church, one of the members asked if they could have a chat with me after the Bible study. So, at the end of the evening, as everyone was leaving, I invited him to stay behind to talk, giving him an opportunity to share what was on his heart. He hadn’t been a Christian very long, and he was clearly quite upset. I asked him what was wrong. After a few moments he shared how difficult he found it to pray. He said he felt inadequate, guilty and was not always sure how to even pray. Prayer is not easy for everyone.
We spoke more, and he went on to say that he didn’t think he was ‘very good at prayer’; he struggled to find the right words, and constantly had those little internal debates in his mind which I am sure if we are honest we can all have at times, times when we might think:
Can God really hear me?
Is He there at all?
Are my prayers simply bouncing back off the ceiling?
What will He think of my prayers, my fumbled words?
And if I’m praying in a group, what will other people think of my prayers?
It is as if there are times in our mind we have a view of what prayer should be like, complete with big, flowery, complicated words and faced with that perceived gap we feel inadequate and are tempted to simply give up.
The person then said that he felt guilty because that he didn’t think he prayed enough. He wanted to pray, but every time he sat down to have a time of prayer, he kept getting distracted, or found that his mind was wandering.
Finally, he said that there were times when he quite simply felt overwhelmed and lost for words. He didn’t know how to pray, or even what to pray for.
I thought about all of these things and after a while I asked him a question. The question was this…“Do you think that the disciples found it easy to pray?” It wasn’t a question he expected, and the words I share with you now are the words I shared with the member of my house group.
Let’s think for one moment about this time and this place when Jesus was with his disciples. We are told that Jesus was “praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”” (Luke 11: 1). Even the disciples wanted to learn how to pray! The disciples had heard Jesus praying to His Father; prayers of faith, prayers of hope, prayers of truth and prayers of intimacy and love – not some formal, stuffy, high-minded, complicated prayers with lots of flowery words.
I tend to think that when Jesus heard the disciples’ request “teach us to pray”, His heart must have rejoiced. He must have had a huge smile on His face. So not only does Jesus indeed go on to teach them how to pray, we also get a sense of his delight when he goes on to say, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened.” God wants us to come before him in prayer in reverence yes, but also with expectancy and hope. I wonder what the disciples expected Jesus to say, how did they expect Him to reply? Is Jesus’ reply what YOU might have expected?
In reading Jesus’ teaching on prayer, I really want us to be encouraged. We would be deceiving ourselves if we didn’t think that Jesus sometimes has hard and testing things to say to us in the Gospels. But on prayer, I am pretty sure that the last thing He wants for us are feelings of guilt or inadequacy. His teaching is hugely encouraging.
Before the longer version of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that we should not pray like the Gentiles, who ‘babble on’, and ‘heap up empty phrases’, and who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Neither should we pray like the hypocrites, who make a public show of prayer. The way we should pray then is as Jesus’ example in the Lord’s Prayer.
It seems pretty clear from Jesus’ words in our reading that he was encouraging his disciples – and us – to pray in a way that shows intimacy with and reliance on God. Jesus tells us to use that very personal and intimate language “Father.” Jesus using ‘Father’ as a title is highly distinctive; it is not a title given directly to God in the Hebrew Scriptures, although it is occasionally used as a metaphor. The Aramaic word for ‘Father’ is “Abba” which is a term of endearment and intimacy. St Paul writes in both Romans and Galatians that as sons and daughters of God, we cry out Abba, Father.
Questions to consider:
Why do we pray? What is our expectancy when we pray?
We pray because we have a good Father, who gives good gifts to his children. Our asking is not a heavy pleading with, or an anguished persuading, but the natural response to a loving God who cares for us. When we pray, let’s simply pour out our heart.
Lord, teach us to pray.
So, when we pray, let us not be like the hypocrites who make a public show of prayer. Let us not be like the Gentiles, who babble on.
Rather, let us use the Lord’s Prayer as our model and inspiration, keeping it short and direct. Engage our heart, so that it can never be ‘empty words’.
Let’s ask our Father, with all the tenderness and trust and intimacy that the name Abba encapsulates.
- Pray that God’s name may be hallowed or made holy.
- Pray that his kingdom may come on earth.
- Ask him for the necessities we need for life.
- Ask him for forgiveness, and the grace to forgive.
- Ask him for protection from, and deliverance from, evil.
And you know, however weak and inadequate we might feel at prayer, Jesus himself takes our poor, hesitant prayers, and perfects them by joining them to his own perfect and complete offering of prayer to the Father, which is why in the Christian tradition we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Our prayers really do make it! And, as St Paul reminds us, the Holy Spirit – the good gift the Father gives us when we ask him, himself prayer deep within us, with inarticulate groans of desire. Amen