Prayer: What If We're Doing It Wrong?

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This is part 2 in a series of reflections on prayer, if you haven’t already, read part 1: Prayer: Why Bother.

In my last post, I ended by asking the question, “What if I told you that prayer is about something else?” Meaning what if prayer isn’t actually about getting God to do the things that we think God should be doing. What if prayer is about something more? What if its about something far better than asking for God’s magic touch on your day or to-do list? 

Before we answer that, lets start with what its not. 

Is it possible that you or I have been doing it wrong?

“You’re wrong about prayer.”

I understand that this might feel offensive to hear. Prayer is a tremendously personal thing. Its kind of a vulnerable thing. Maybe you’re like me and have wondered at times about the effectiveness of prayer, and so participating is kind of like going out on a limb. Perhaps its just me, but it feels offensive to hear someone say “you’re doing it wrong,” especially if I vulnerably put myself out there to do it in the first place.

Why, then, am I comfortable to say it? Because it wasn’t any less offensive when Jesus said it. Jesus actually started his teaching on prayer by letting people know that its possible some of them were doing it wrong. 

Matthew, one of Jesus disciples, tells the story. Jesus was sitting on a hillside, and teaching what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” And during this sermon, he covered the topic of prayer. As he begins his teaching on prayer, he starts by offering 3 corrections. In other words he starts by telling people—“You’re doing it wrong!” 

Here’s how Matthew tells it:

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Mt 6:5–8). 

There are three correctives here: Don’t pray in front of others, don’t worry about what you’ll say, and don’t spend the whole time asking for things.

Don’t Pray in Front of Others

Jesus starts off by saying, “Don’t pray in front of others.” In other words, prayer is not about looking spiritual to other people. If the goal of your prayer is to be seen praying, Jesus says: “Congratulations, mission accomplished—you wanted to be seen praying, you prayed in front of others, they saw you—we’re done here!” That’s why Jesus says the hypocrites have received their reward. The reward was to be seen—if you prayed in public—you were seen. Reward received.

But if you really want a rewarding prayer life, go behind closed doors to pray to your Father in heaven. Its the going behind closed doors that will result in you being truly rewarded. Let me be clear, Jesus is not telling us the formula here for how to get God to do the things you think God should do. Its not as though your mistake in prayer so far has been asking for a bigger house and nicer car, a better marriage, or less financial stress—in public—and instead, what you need to do is pray for those things in private. 

That’s not what Jesus is saying. So then what is he saying?

He’s instructing his listeners to place themselves in an intentional space and state for communicating with God. How you engage in a relationships in private is one of the most honest showing of the character of that relationship. Rewarding relationships are cultivated behind closed doors. To never take time alone, away from distraction, to talk to God, and still expect a healthy line of communication, is unreasonable. It would be like if I never talked to my wife, Alanna, in private. If I am attentive to her only in public so that others can see (ie. opening doors, serving her, etc.) but completely ignore her behind closed doors, you’d probably say that I lacked integrity. That I’m being fake. You’d be right.

You are not who you are in public—you are who you are when nobody is watching. 

And it is what you do in private that gets rewarded.

So Jesus says, don’t pray in public places to look spiritual. Prayer isn’t about looking spiritual its about cultivating a relationship, and that happens behind closed doors. Corey, can’t I pray anywhere? On the go? In the car? Before your meals? 

Absolutely, just like you can talk to a close friend or spouse on the go, in the car and at meals. But Jesus says prayer is not just an on-the-go thing, it requires focused attention, behind closed doors.

So if it is not about looking spiritual, but it is about getting away from distraction to cultivate a relationship—then you may be wondering what do I say once I’m alone with God? Good news, Jesus answers that question.

Don’t Worry about What You’ll Say

His answer is “don’t worry about it.”

That might not be all that satisfying so let me explain. Jesus says that the pagans babble thinking they’ll be heard for their many words. To babble is to say words over and over and over again, meaning they keep filling the space with words. This is a temptation that many, myself included, can relate to. We all fear the awkward silence in conversations, especially when we are with those we just met, with whom we don’t share a deep relationship. That pause, or awkward silence, comes naturally in most conversations every seven to eleven minutes or so. We don’t like the silence though. Some of us feel the need to fill the space with words. 

One of the signs of a deep relationship, however, is the ability to sit comfortably in the silence. To not feel compelled to fill the space with words. And that’s part of what Jesus is saying here: Once you get out of the busy distraction of life, and close the door behind you—don’t worry too much about what you’ll say, don’t feel the need to start talking and talking and talking.

I think another part of what Jesus is saying here, is that there is no special combination of words that you need to figure out in order to get God to do what you think God should do. Sometimes you might feel compelled to just throw all kinds of word-combos up at God hoping that the more you throw up at him, the more likely it is that something will stick. But Jesus is saying don’t worry about what you’ll say, there is no verbal formula. There is no secret code. There is no combination that you need to figure out in order to get God to do what you think God should do for you. Remember, prayer is not just about getting God to do the things you think he should do. 

So don’t pray in public, go in private, behind closed doors. Once you’re there, don’t worry too much about what you’ll say. 

Ok then, what’s the third correction?

After the first two corrections Jesus then utters the words that are at the same time most comforting and most frustrating. These words have sparked every generation of praying people to ask the same question at some point or other…

Don’t Spend the Whole Time Asking for Things

Correction number 3—don’t spend the whole time asking for things.

If you feel like I have, that most of your prayers are really just about getting God to do stuff for you, then hold tight because this is going to be frustrating. Jesus says that you don’t need to spend the whole time asking for things because you’re Father in Heaven already knows what you need, before you ask him. 

Before we hit the frustrating question let me let me tell you why I think this is comforting first. “Don’t spend the whole time asking for things, he already knows what you need.” Think about that for a minute. The God of the universe. All knowing, all powerful, creating God. The God who has existed from before time began. To think that that God, the creator of the universe, knows me, knows what I need, knows what I’m going to ask for, what I’m longing for most in this life—and he knows what I’m going to ask Him before I even ask it is comforting. I think its comforting to think that God knows and loves me that much. That I don’t even need to tell him, he already knows. 

However, this raises a huge, and hopefully obvious FAQ…

If God knows what I need, and knows what I’m going to ask for, before I ever ask for it: 

  • THEN WHY IN THE WORLD WOULD WE BOTHER ASKING IN THE FIRST PLACE?
  • WHAT IS THE POINT OF PRAYER IF HE ALREADY KNOWS EVERYTHING?
  • WHAT DOES IT EVEN DO?
  • WHY BOTHER?!?!?!

Unless prayer is supposed to be about something else, something different, something more.

What is that more? And what is the reward that Jesus said the Father will give?

Great Question! We’ll answer that next. 

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Great article! Looking forward to the rest.