“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.” – Matt 6:7
We can all struggle with prayer. We don’t know exactly how to pray. And we’re not completely sure why prayer is important to begin with. And people have always felt this way. Jesus’ disciples did. So they asked. “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1). And Jesus did.
First, Jesus says that prayer isn’t about heaping up empty phrases. It’s not about using “many words.” We never inform God of anything. On this matter Jesus is clear. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). This is lesson #1. God knows. And so don’t babble.
Now, if we stop here, we’d be tempted to think that prayer is pointless. But it’s not. Jesus prayed. And Jesus assumes that we’ll pray too. “When you are praying” isn’t Jesus’ way of saying “if you feel the need to pray.” When means when. And so here’s lesson #2. “Your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him” (Mt 7:11). God’s knows. Don’t babble. But do ask him.
In a very real sense, this is the tension of all authentic prayer. Too many words can be bad – a lack of faith in our God who knows. And yet, too few words can be even worst – a lack of faith in our God who desires that we ask.
The good news is that we’re never alone when we pray. Prayer is so much more mystical than we think. It’s not a psychological exercise – it’s an encounter with the Living God. God’s “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Notice two things. First, God’s Spirit intercedes for us. In other words, God isn’t just the recipient of our prayers. God is also the Source of our prayers. Second, some prayers are just “too deep for words.” Life is complex. We’re a paradoxical bundle of wants and desires and needs and fears so complex that, at times, we can’t even speak. The good news is that God’s Spirit speaks for us, and in us, during these moments. God knows. God prays. There’s no need to babble.
And yet, we are in a relationship with God. And we are told to ask for the things we need. James’ words are still true for some of us. “You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jas 4:2). And “asking” is what prayer is all about. We ask for peace and health and faith. We ask for rest and wisdom. We ask things on behalf of our friends and our family. And whenever we ask in faith, we pray. Sometimes God says “yes.” Sometimes God says “no.” And our God, who dwells in eternity, is never rushed or frantic or desperate. Sometimes God’s “yeses” don’t come right away. But we ask nevertheless. And when we ask, we pray. And when we pray, we grow and live into the tension.
FOR TODAY: Pray. Live into the tension of Christian prayer. Ask for what you need. And be confident that God’s answer is wise and wonderful and full of grace. And be encouraged by that inner-gnawing that you can’t even give voice to. No need to babble. The Spirit knows exactly what to say. And God’s Spirit intercedes for you.