Prayer is a tricky business. Or at least so it would seem from conversations that I’ve had with other Christians, with people on the fringe of Church life and non-Christians who challenge me about it. And, if I’m honest, it can be a bit of tricky business for me too. And lots of teaching on prayer appears designed to make us feel guilty about it.
And because so many of us find it tricky, we also find that it becomes a source of guilt and anxiety for us. We don’t feel that we pray for long enough or often enough; or we don’t pray well enough; we don’t know what to pray about; our prayer is too formulaic and stale, lacking variety and inspiration; we get too easily distracted; and everybody else seems to do it better than me. You probably have your own anxieties that you could add to the list.
But what to do about it?
Well, we all seem to think that it’s something we should do – few of us are inclined to say that it’s not important and should be regarded as optional (although sometimes we make it look like we think it is).
Jesus did and taught his disciples how to do it. If it was important for him it must be important for us too. In the gospels at the important, decisive moments of Jesus’s life and ministry he withdraws and prays – in the wilderness, on the mount of transfiguration, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the cross; and at other times he seeks a place by himself where he can pray.
He taught his disciples what we know as the Lord’s prayer. This teaching is recorded twice in the gospels, in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. The prayer itself is different (is that significant?) and the contexts in which he teaches it are different. The version in Matthew’s gospel is the one we use in our Church worship, and probably the one we use in our own private prayers. Jesus teaches the crowds this prayer in the sermon on the mount (Mt 5-7). Here it comes in teaching about religious duty – almsgiving, fasting and prayer. All these activities, says Jesus, should be done in secret for fear of finding approval and reward from society; if only God sees us doing these things then our reward will be from God. The Lord’s prayer here is introduced as an antidote to babbling. These few words are enough. Our prayer is focussed and to the point. At the end Jesus emphasises the importance of being forgiving if we wish to be forgiven.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus teaches the disciples the (shorter) Lord’s prayer in response to their request, Lord, teach us to pray. The prayer is followed by more teaching on prayer – a parable about the persistent neighbour who wishes to borrow three loaves for a friend who has called late. This is followed by an instruction to ask so that we might receive, to knock so that the door might be opened, and a rhetorical question about who would give bad things to a child who asked to be fed. God knows what we need and will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.
Does this help? Well it might if we paid heed to what Jesus is saying, and what I think he is saying is this:
Keep it simple. Find a quiet space (Mt 6.6), use few words (Mt 6.7), trust God to know what you need and to provide it (Lk 11.13), pray often (Lk 11.8) and let your prayer challenge and change the way you live (Mt 6.14-15).
Jesus said it all,
Father, may your name be held holy,
your kingdom come;
give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.
And do not put us to the test.
(Lk 11.2b-4, NJB)