What Prayers? Which God?
Bishop Ryle said memorably “If you want to embarrass a man, ask him about his prayers.” As Jesus teaches about prayer he certainly embarrasses many religious people of his day and ours. His teaching on this subject stems not just from his knowledge of human nature but also his knowledge of God. He establishes that what my prayers are like will show what my God is like, which God I believe in.
1. The God who needn’t be there v.5
This is the mark of the god of the hypocrites. They are not “religious” people who do not pray, rather “they love to pray!” It is just that God needn’t be there, he is superfluous. “They love to pray… to be seen by men”. Far from not praying, they actually pray so impressively that we listen and comment on their spirituality. That, of course was the point of their praying. It was done to impress. The temptation to show off is a constant danger in public prayer, especially in prayer gatherings where one is tempted to compete with the last prayer, use acceptable clichés, sentiments, tone of voice, or appropriate fervency. Equally nauseous is the minister at the prayer desk, plummy and unctuous of voice, intoning set prayers. “They have tier reward” as we admire their spirituality. If God needn’t be there for the performance – he won’t be!
2. The God who needs persuading v.7
The picture is of pagan gods who can be persuaded and need cajoling into action. “Do not keep on babbling (a word that seems to signify all lips and no heart or mind) like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Jesus is not banning lengthy prayers, or even repeating a prayer (remember Gethsemane) or persisting in prayer (Luke 18:1-10) but condemning the idea that God isn’t interested or can be swayed by going on and on. Some people pray as if God can’t or won’t act unless we mouth the right formula. Many spiritualities reflect this in constant chanting of a god’s name or a prayer phrase, or mindless repetitions of set prayers. Evangelicals can tend to chalk-up sufficient prayer or explain types or lengths of prayer meetings with phrases like “God will only bless if…” or “God must bless because…” Jesus is succinct: “do not be like them” v.8 Why? Because prayer is not coming to a heartless, thoughtless God or setting to work to persuade him.
3. The God who is our Father vs.6,8,9
Huge emphasis is given to this (6:1, 4, 5, 6, 9, 14, 15, 18) so that even the slowest of us might grasp it. We are invited to share Jesus’ relationship to God and call him “Our Father”. so nothing should lure us from this privilege, or tempt us to misuse it. Why pray to impress people when I can be praying to “my Father”? There is nothing to lose, for our God is a God-who-sees-in-secret and “he will reward you”. To swap God’s approval and God’s reward for man’s approval and man’s reward is the mark of a fool! Here is a tester: if we pray often alone we can afford to pray in public, whereas if we never pray alone our public prayer is showing off.
We ought never to forget the enormous privilege, of course. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him”. that is the mark of the true God, as the mark of this Father is that he knows the needs of his children. it is why we pray to him. Not because we’ll always get what we want, not to tell God what to do, but because he does know what to do. What a waste of time talking to a God who doesn’t!
The final word to Bishop Ryle: “Prayer is that point in religion at which you must most of all be on your guard. Here it is that true religion begins: here it flourishes and here it decays.”
Hugh Palmer is on the staff of Christ Church, Fulwood, Sheffield