This excerpt is adapted from The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father by Wesley Hill, a new release from Lexham Press.
At the center of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, He offers to his disciples a model for prayer. This would not have seemed at all unusual to Jesus’ followers. Many teachers who attracted crowds in Palestine, like Jesus did, were expected to pass on their insights about how best to beseech God, and Jesus wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows by conveying his. In the Gospel of Luke, for instance, Jesus’ disciples are the ones who prompt His instruction: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John [the Baptist] taught his disciples” (11:1).
What would have been surprising to the crowd listening to Jesus that day was the way Jesus spoke about prayer. He rejected the ostentatious style of prayer with which his listeners would have been familiar. Instead, he emphasized how uncomplicated prayer should be:
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt 6:5–8)
With these words, Jesus dismisses at a stroke the unusual prayers of the experts in the Jewish law as well as the elaborately theatrical models of the pagan gentile world. There’s no need for pretentious displays, Jesus insists. Prayer shouldn’t be calculated to impress, whether one is seeking to attract the attention of God or other people. Why?
Because God doesn’t need our prayer.
In effect, Jesus says: God isn’t looking to have his arm twisted or to be cajoled or bargained with or manipulated. God doesn’t require a flawless recitation of certain phrases, as if he were poised to fly into a rage in the absence of the right formula or performance.
No, Jesus says, God is “your Father,” and he already is disposed favorably toward you. “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isa 65:24). Go find a quiet place where you can relax, Jesus seems to say. Unclench your fists. Breathe deeply. Let your heart rate decrease. Know that you’re already bathed in the Father’s love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you’re speaking is already cupping his ear in your direction. That’s what prayer should be.
It’s no wonder, then, that when Christian liturgies introduce the Lord’s Prayer in the context of worship, they often use a formula like this: “And now as our savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say . . .”
We can, in other words, give up all our anxious efforts to pacify, convince, or haggle with God. We can trade in that performative style of prayer for one that is more homely and familial. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes: “We have the nerve to call God what Jesus called him, because of the Spirit we share with Jesus as a result of being baptized, ‘immersed’ in the life of Jesus.”
What Jesus—and later Paul, following in his footsteps—offers to believers is a picture of a God who is eager, indeed, delighted to hear prayer. Unlike human fathers, who are often engrossed in their smartphones and have to have their attention captured in some creative way by their children, God is already and always attentive to his children. It is with that in mind that Jesus says to his disciples, “Pray then in this way . . .” (Matt 6:9).
This post is adapted from The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father by Wesley Hill, available now through Lexham Press.
The title of this post is the addition of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.