“When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
This week we are talking about prayer. Specifically, we are looking at some of Jesus’ thoughts on prayer from the Sermon on the Mount. When He starts talking about prayer in the middle of His sermon, His first comments are focused on what not to do. After that He shifts gears to giving us an example to follow in our own praying. Yesterday we looked at the first example of what not to do. Specifically, we are not to use prayer as a means of self-advancement. Prayer is about building and developing our relationship with Jesus. Anything less and it won’t do us any good. This morning, let’s take a look at His second caution. If His first caution was focused on why we pray, this one focuses more on the how.
Prayer is not something to which followers of Jesus have exclusive rights. People everywhere have always prayed. The reason, nature, and object of our prayers may vary rather wildly from person to person, place to place, and from one historical era to another, but the fact of our praying has remained fairly unchanged. At its most basic level, prayer is simply our attempt to make contact with a power higher than ourselves. Generally this power is viewed as divine in some capacity, but not necessarily so. All human religions across the ages have had some sort of prayer component as a part of their basic functions for adherents.
In Jesus’ day, people who believed in the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses could actually go and buy ready-made prayers. These were strings of words written down by a priest and which were guaranteed (for one low payment of $19.99) to achieve the object of the asker. There were prayers like this designed for all sorts of different needs. If you wanted your crops to grow, you could buy a crop-growing prayer. If you wanted an enemy to be punished, you could buy a justice prayer. If you wanted a girl to fall in love with you, you could buy a romance prayer. You name the desire or need, there was a prayer for you.
Archaeologists have actually found fragments of ancient prayer scrolls. They are often long and wordy. Sometimes the words are nonsense. The reason for this comes out of their understanding of the gods. They believed you had to work hard to get the gods’ attention. You had to butter them up a bit too. If you wanted them to respond, you had to convince them you were worthy of their effort and consideration. The result of this was just as Jesus described here. What He said here connected with His audience because they had all seen and heard these kinds of prayers being prayed. A Gentile worshiper would babble on and on and on, thinking that all the words were necessary to make their praying effective.
What Jesus wanted His followers to know is that God isn’t like that. We don’t have to work to get His attention. We don’t have to try and convince or otherwise sucker Him in to doing what we want. We can’t manipulate Him. We don’t need to try and butter Him up so He’ll be more receptive to our request. None of those things are true. Our God is not like the other gods. The gods of the Greeks and the Romans were little more than super-powered reflections of themselves. They had the whole range of human faults and foibles. They were simply immortal and powerful. The one true God is not like that. And if we don’t think about Him rightly, we’ll never pray to Him rightly.
The God of the Bible is good. He loves people. He delights in giving us good things. And He knows our needs. Even before we ask, Jesus said, He knows what we need. Because of all of this, more words don’t necessarily make a better prayer. In fact, in most cases, more words don’t make a better prayer. They often make a prayer repetitive and boring. Think about it: Do you want someone coming to ask you for something babbling on for ten minutes during which time they tell you how great you are ten times and repeat their request in different ways twenty times? Neither does God. Remember, the point of prayer is to pursue a relationship with Jesus. Well then, pursue a relationship with Him when you pray. Talk to Him like you would talk to a friend. Don’t ever forget He is the holy and righteous God, but neither should you babble on forever as if that’s going to make Him more likely to listen to you.
Instead, when you have a request of God, make it. If you want to tell Him how great He is (something that is okay to do), tell Him. If you want to share with Him why you’re upset about something, share with Him. If you want to ask for wisdom about a big decision you need to make, ask Him. Let your prayers be simple and direct. Remember that more words do not make a better prayer. Sometimes fewer words and more listening is what we need to gain from Him what He wants to give us.
All of that being said, this does raise a couple of questions. First, if God knows our needs before we ask Him about them, why bother praying? Because of what we said yesterday. Prayer is fundamentally about building a relationship with Jesus. When we set our needs before Him, we are establishing our need of Him. When we get this right in our hearts we are communicating our need and desire for Him. We aren’t asking Him for things because He doesn’t know we need Him, we are asking Him for things because we need Him. When we need Him and are willing to tell Him that, He will draw near to us even as we are seeking to draw near to Him.
A second question here is whether there is any place for long prayers at all in our pursuit of God? Privately, sure. If you are having a conversation with a friend, that conversation may run long into the night. That’s fine. If you are having a conversation with God, that conversation may run long. Great. Publicly, though, I would tend to lean in the direction of no. In the context of a prayer gathering, a group of people can certainly seek the Lord together for a lengthy period of time. That kind of prayer session, though, is likely going to include as much collective silence before Him as it will speaking. Perhaps even more. And, those kinds of gatherings are usually going to be only attended by mature believers who are going to be encouraged rather than distracted by a fellow believer laying her heart out in great detail before her heavenly Father. There’s nothing wrong with that.
In the context of a worship gathering, though, and especially one in which unbelievers are likely to be present, a long prayer can serve as more of a distraction from the purpose of the gathering than an invitation into a relationship with Jesus. Long prayers–and for the purpose of clarity, let’s define these as prayers that last much more than about 90 seconds–can quickly and easily cross a line from a helpful spiritual exercise to an unhelpful show of spirituality. If people are going to come away more impressed with how long we can pray than they are with the God to whom we are praying, we’re not doing it right. Shorter, focused prayers are better in such circumstances. They should still be directed at God and sincere in their intent–prayer should not be used as a transition from one part of the service to another–but short prayers can be just as sincere as long ones.
In the end, we must come back once again to the purpose of prayer. Prayer is about pursuing a deeper relationship with Jesus. And, the better we understand who God is, the better we will do that. Of course, prayer is a great way to develop a deeper understanding of who God is. This is especially true when it is combined with our study of the Scriptures. But that only means that prayer is a learning exercise. It is a discipline of discipleship. Or, to come full circle, it is something that helps us pursue a deeper relationship with Jesus. If we get that right, everything else will tend to fall nicely into place. All of this, though, still leaves unanswered the question of how we pray. Lord willing, we’ll talk about that tomorrow. See you then.