Shorter Prayer~Better Prayer
“In private a man may pray as long as he will; in public, not so.” ~Lisu catechism.
Jesus is clever. The founder of the world’s largest religion ought to be religious, right? Yet Jesus is a tremendous source for undermining many weird religious ideas and practices in order to replace them with sensible wisdom. His teaching on prayer is a great example.
The context is the Sermon on the Mount. Tested physically, relationally and spiritually for 40 days, Jesus understands the challenge of being human. He declares that God is available, here and now, as a reliable authority for life. Jesus displays God’s presence by meeting physical, relational and spiritual needs of people from all over. He then gathers his disciples and explains what maturing righteousness looks like.
The pivot point in his sermon shifts toward application. Character development is best advanced by avoiding social status for spiritual disciplines. The primary contemporary disciplines of his audience (giving/praying/fasting) are each deconstructed such that showmanship is replaced with craftsmanship.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Regarding prayer Jesus voices two warnings. The first is his general point of the spiritual emptiness of showmanship applied to public praying. If we pray in order to let people know we pray, all we get is people knowing that we pray; nothing more. Jesus’ recommendation is that we focus on praying when and where we are confident that our audience is in fact God.
“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.
The second warning Jesus gives regarding prayer is in regard to the need to aim. He denounces the quantity is quality mindset of spraying large amounts of words, perhaps with large emotional range and volume. Rambling expansive prayer is a mess. Jesus does not recommend it.
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.
What Jesus does recommend is focused connection. God is not uninformed or uninterested in our concerns. If we do not pray to inform or persuade, then why do we pray? We pray to intentionally recalibrate our own understanding of who we are in relation to God and his purposes. We then connect our relationship to God and his purposes to three primary spheres of human need: physical, relational and spiritual.
These three categories can be compared to the concept of primary colors. Starting with three primary colors we have access to the full palette of colors. Part of the purpose of Genesis is to introduce those primary categories. We relate spiritually to God as our king and father, relationally to one another as complementary and mutual members of our Father’s family, and we represent the Kingdom of our Father as we rule wisely over his physical creation. A crown, heart and world can be used to symbolize these categories.
In Jesus’ teaching on prayer he includes all three: physical needs as in daily bread, relational needs of mutual forgiveness and spiritual needs of rescue from the lure of evil and perseverance in the fidelity to God and his kingdom. But we are not to start our prayers with a focus on our needs. We are to start our prayers with a reminder of our resources.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
“Our Father” is as concise an articulation of the purpose of life and the point of scripture as there is. Jesus says that all of the Hebrew scriptures can be summed up with 2 commands: Love God with appropriate thoroughness of our being, and, love people with appropriate mutuality. Praying “Our Father” reminds us that we are able to share mutual love with other people because we belong to the God of heaven as family.
Our father in heaven is the one who has revealed himself as YHWH, the Self-Existent One, I AM. We pray to him as Father over a family, but we are careful not to redefine “father” to any fallen image of fatherhood. God’s name, and his revealed character through that name, are to define what we mean when we pray to “Our Father, who art in heaven”; we are intentional to remember “hallowed by thy name.”
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
In remembering who God is and who we are in him, we are also to remember what that commits us to advance. God is father and king, with values and virtues and purposes. Our allegiance to who he is includes our allegiance to what he does. “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus instructs us to pray in a way that connects our awareness to who we are and what we are for. We are God’s, along with all of God’s children, and we are committed to the ideals of Heaven becoming embodied in this earthly realm. We are praying a pledge of allegiance with affection, gratitude, focus and expectation. We pray to declare to ourselves and to God that we belong and that we are part of his work in this world.
Having re-calibrated our identity and purposes we rightly zoom in on our role in God’s great purposes. We are physical beings, living with others, seeking to be faithful to God’s kingdom. We therefore pray accordingly.
Give us this day our daily bread
Physical needs are part of mortal life. We live in this world from this world. However, Jesus reminded the Tempter that even what meets our physical needs is dependent on God to give life. And so we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” as reminder that God is the ultimate source of the practical needs my body is constantly reminding me to pursue.
and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Relational needs are what follow from physical needs. I am alive in order to love. Love is the purpose of life, and the failure to maintain love is ultimately the source of death. The idea that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” is much richer than rule breaking. Laws given by God to his covenant people as a type of connect-the-dots primers. The Law is nothing in itself. It is something that points to something that actually matters. Romans 13 and Galatians 5 are a couple of examples to reassure biblical scribes, pharisees and other religiously anxious people that Love is the point, Law just points to the point.
What we need in order for love to flourish is connection. Breaking connection with one another is failure to give what is promised. That causes indebtedness. By praying that God would forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us we are voicing our need for connection. Keeping debts keeps us disconnected. Finding a way to relieve those debts enables connection.
Jesus imbeds a troubling thought about God’s debt relief for us being connected to our debt relief for others. He cares for us. He wants to save us from the delusion that we have allegiance to a royal father through debt relief for connection if in fact we betray that value by refusing debt relief under our regency. He will highlight this one more time at the end of the prayer training.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Spiritual needs are avoiding evil and maintaining faithfulness. We are praying that God would empower us to be “Semper Fidelis”. When evil tempts us to rationalize ways to use the will/spirit God has given us for purposes other than God intends, we pray for deliverance. We ask God to guide us around an awaiting ambush; to rescue us from being overrun by an enemy assault. We do not want to fall into enemy control. We have an identity as part of a royal family. We have a purpose to advance a royal cause.
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.
Jesus emphasizes what Israel struggled to remember. We are not blessed to simply for us to be blessed. That attitude is what lead to Israel’s exile. They did not understand how God’s own provision of justice was the basis of the mercy to be shared. We are blessed to be a blessing.
We do not stand in a pool under a waterfall of blessings, starting with forgiveness and building toward health and wealth and status. That kind of thinking is rebellion against the king of mercy.
We stand in a river of living water. Merciful forgiveness and blessings flow to us from God and through us to others. If we harden our hearts to be stiff and impenetrable as a dam, God will direct his flow of mercy and blessings around us.
Working backwards through the lessons Jesus taught, let us pray with purpose.
Pray that God will not withhold his forgiveness for us, but that he will have his forgiveness flow through us.
Pray that we will trust God for our spiritual, relational and physical needs.
Pray that God’s will invades our world. Pray that it will come through his children, born through merciful grace received through faith for a future of meaningful life works to the glory of Our Father.
Pray like Jesus taught.