(Mat 6:7-8 ESV) “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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
This has always been one of my favorite verses, because Jesus insists on short prayers. Of course. He has to listen to them all, and I’m sure he developed a taste for brevity a very long time ago.
So many prayers sound like sermons, or legal briefs, or anything but respect for God’s intelligence. I mean, he’s knows that he’s the Lord. No need to say so with every inhale and exhale.
And it only makes sense that a super-being of unspeakable intellect does not need to be briefed on the keen logic of your request. He’s ahead of you. Keep it simple.
That’s the easy part of this passage. The hard part is: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If so, and it does make sense, why ask?
In a recent post over at Wineskins, Richard Beck suggests,
In prayer I renounce the idolatrous ways I grasp at significance, the ways I try to justify my existence and worth in the eyes of the world. And in prayer I learn to receive life as a gift. In these ways—in renouncing and receiving—the anxious knot at the core of my selfhood is slowly untangled. I find myself turning outward with joy and love.
In short, prayer cultivates a Eucharistic identity, a life that flows out of gratitude, joy, peace and thanksgiving.
Very logical, and I can’t help but agree that prayer changes the one who prays. But what about changing God? James says,
(Jam 4:2-3 ESV) 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
James seems to think that praying matters to God as well, although we must pray in faith and for godly things.
But if God already knows what we need, why pray?
(Luk 11:5-13 ESV) And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.
9 “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Again, not an easy passage. I don’t think Jesus is saying that we need to nag God. Rather, his point is that if a mere human will respond to repeated requests, surely God can be counted on to do all the more — indeed, able to give you what you need rather than what you ask for!
So Jesus is saying that God will give us what we need even if we ask for the wrong thing. Very good. So why ask at all?
McKnight quotes this marvelous passage from C. S. Lewis —
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of rewards. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it and it is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man a mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. . . .
The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity itself in consummation. There is also a third case, which is more complicated. An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper . . . reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so . . . enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just insofar as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward. . . .
Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 157-158.
So, yes, God knows what’s best for us far beyond our ability to imagine. Of course, we should expect him to have the kindness and good sense to say “no” to most of what we ask for. We’re just like my two-year grandson who just pitched a fit for bread and butter when his grandmother was offering him steak. He’ll learn better.
Maybe the answer is (are you ready for it) that God sometimes answers. Outloud. Well, not like the voice of James Earl Jones booming from the rafters — but loudly enough that the one praying hears.
(1Ki 19:11-13 ESV) 11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
I don’t think this happens every time or even 1 in 100 times. At least not for most of us. But how many times would you pray if you knew there was a decent chance that God would answer where you could hear his voice? How many times in your lifetime would you need to experience this for it to motivate a lifetime of prayer?
[If you doubt me, ask your Sunday school class or small group. You just have to first create a safe environment, free from doubt and ridicule. You’ll be amazed at how very active God is among your friends. But you have to ask.]
I’ll wrap up with some quotations from a far greater expert on prayer than me: Mother Teresa —
I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.
From this post —
Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life.
The interviewer asked, “When you pray, what do you say to God?”
Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”
Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”
Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”
There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next.
Finally Mother Teresa breaks the silence by saying, “If you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I’m sorry but there’s no way I can explain it any better.”
But Mother Teresa often found herself frustrated by God’s refusal to answer. Indeed, after feeling called to Calcutta to serve the poor, God’s answers became silence —
Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart – & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God, – please forgive me.
How did she respond to God’s silence? By continuing to serve the poor in Calcutta. What else could a person of faith do?
Which brings me to one of greatest passages in all of scripture —
(Mar 9:21-25 ESV) 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
I get it.