I knew God’s name as a kid. It was Howard. It was right there in The Lord’s Prayer – ‘Howard be your name.’ I never questioned why we called him God instead of Howard, after all, I knew my Dad’s name was Colin but we just called him Dad. Only Jesus called God Howard. I figured it was their special name.
Every week I had to say The Lord’s Prayer in Scripture class at primary school. No one told us what the words meant or how to pray. Strange really. So much focus on saying these particular words but not what they meant or that prayer could be about a relationship with God.
I’ve spent time reading the words of Jesus since I was a kid. I’ve found them to be true. Here are a few truths I found from Matthew 6:5-15.
Playing (or Praying) on the Stage
I think of someone who says one thing but does another when I hear the word ‘hypocrite.’ It’s where actions and words don’t line up. Isn’t this the complaint people so often have against Christians? They say Christians speak about love but don’t treat people with love; Christians talk about forgiveness but are quick to judge others; Christians act like goody-two-shoes but can point to Christian leaders who morally fail. This is what the word hypocrite means today.
But Jesus doesn’t use hypocrite like this. Words change their meanings over time. When Jesus uses the word hypocrite, he’s referring to the Greek acting tradition. Hypokrites was the Greek word for actor – you know, those guys on stage who wear the masks?
I did both school musicals and the football team when I was in high school (I know, it’s a weird combination.) You want to convince the audience of your character when you’re acting in the musicals, but here’s a secret, it’s all just pretend. You’re just pretending to be that character. And the payoff is the audience’s applause.
Jesus doesn’t want prayer to be an act played out on a stage. This is taking something sacred and beautiful, and reducing it to a sideshow. It is cheap and tawdry no matter how spectacular it looks.
Praying an Empty Hand
The second image Jesus uses to model how not to pray is the Gentiles. Everyone not praying to the true God had to perform specific rituals and say certain prayers just to get their god’s attention. We don’t need to do that. We don’t need to use fancy words (strangely The Lord’s Prayer still has thou’s and thy’s in my mind). God already approves of us. He has already turned his ear toward us because of Jesus.
Probably more common for followers of Jesus today is praying empty prayers. You know the ones we rattle off the same words at the same event each day (like, maybe, dinner). There’s nothing wrong with wrote prayers, except if we’re just going through the motions. I find this so easy; I recite words without thinking about them. This is taking prayer and cheapening it.
Wait, Did Jesus Just Send Me To My Room?
I’ve seen the movie War Room. There was a lot praying in cupboards. Is Jesus really so uptight that he’s sending us all to our rooms to pray? Are we meant to go into our cupboards? I don’t really have spare ones, do I have to take all my clothes out each time I want to pray?
I think Jesus is Ok with us praying in public and when we get together. The point he is making is more of a heart issue than a location one. The person who only prays like the actor prays in public because they want to be noticed. The person praying in private only wants God to hear them. One person is self-serving, the other is God serving.
Praying in private is the place where your relationship with God is rooted. This is where we pray most often, and it from private prayer that public prayer stems forth.
A Third Way
How should you pray, if prayer shouldn’t be self-serving or empty? For Jesus, prayer is all about relationship. He says pray like a kid talking to a good dad. It is balancing God’s holiness and also his familiarity. He is Abba – Daddy. Prayer is about seeking God; knowing that he already loves you; he accepts you, and he has called you his child.
And prayer leads us to align our purpose with God’s. It’s his kingdom we want to see in the world around us. Prayer leads us to filter things through the lens of God’s kingdom. And his kingdom becomes the litmus test by we ask God for things.
There’s nothing wrong asking God for things. Jesus does this as teaches the disciples how to pray, but it’s in light of the kingdom. So definitely ask. But I think it’s a good idea to also ask ourselves how it will help God’s kingdom come in our lives and the world around us.
Jesus’ way of praying is radically different. It’s rich in a relationship. It invites you to know the Father (by the way, I found out his name isn’t Howard), and hold in tension his intimacy and his holiness. It is full of purpose, his kingdom, instead of the emptiness of meaningless repetition. And it allows you to urgently your needs to a loving Dad who knows them and is on your side.
So, how are you praying?
I am a pastor, blogger and speaker. I help ordinary people connect with an extraordinary God, so they can follow Jesus in their everyday life.