“When you pray, say…”
“Our Father in heaven…” Matthew 6:9
A few weeks ago, we began a sermon series going through the Gospel according to Matthew and most recently we’ve studied a few passages from the Sermon on the Mount--specifically, Matthew 5:13-16 (Salt and Light) and Matthew 6:5-15 (The Lord’s Prayer).
A few days ago, I was called on to write an article recapping or reflecting on these messages. (Actually, it was more like a week and a half ago. Whoops.) So here I am, nearing midnight and furiously trying to write because my editor called me out an hour ago when she saw the google doc that I shared with her last week was still empty as of 10pm today and this is all supposed to go live tomorrow. (Sorry, Joyce!)* And so, for the sake of time and space, I’ll focus on the Lord’s Prayer because even just this section is remarkable and so thick with meaning, most of which I won’t be able to cram into my space limits.
So when Jesus starts talking about prayer, He starts by talking about what it isn’t. First of all, if you’re praying to be seen by others, you are totally missing the point of prayer and you’re being hypocritical. That thing you’re claiming to be prayer, isn’t even really prayer because prayer is talking to God. When you’re out there praying to be heard to impress, you’re not praying to God--you’re praying to other people. But the whole point of prayer is to connect with God. So do what it takes to let that happen--get alone, find a space where it can be just you and God, and just talk to Him.
And then second, don’t pray mechanically. Don’t be heaping up empty phrases and just trying to shove words down God’s ear in the hopes that some of them will actually be heard, because either God is too far away and we need to string all those words together to reach him, or else He’s not really interested in us anyways so we’d better get on His case and make Him pay attention to us.
In a word, Jesus says, prayer for His followers is fundamentally different from that of the religious hypocrites and of the Gentiles (the people who aren’t part of the community of Jesus followers). But why?
Prayer is towards God--and the whole way that you pray depends on what kind of God you think you’re talking to. Both the religious hypocrites and the Gentiles have this conception of God that Jesus says is just off, it’s incorrect. The god of the religious person is an impersonal, easily manageable god of rules and ritual checkboxes; the god of the Gentile is a distant or stingy god whose ear must be rubbed and for whom phrases must be heaped so that he might actually maybe kind-of, sort-of pay attention to us.
So then what kind of God is this to whom we pray and with whom we talk? In a word, Jesus says, this God is “Our Father.” (Okay--technically two words.) This is how we’re supposed to understand prayer: it’s personal, and the person on the other end loves us.
It was this understanding of what God is really like that pretty much changed my life four years ago, the spring semester of my freshman year of college. (Yikes. “Four years ago”--did I just date myself?) Though I’d grown up “churched”, the god I had inside my head wasn’t exactly the God who revealed Himself through the Scriptures and through Jesus. This god was full of rules and regulations that had to be obeyed, “or else.” This god really only paid attention when I did something wrong, being ready right then and there to crack the whip and demand perfection. But the real, living God as revealed in Scripture is this: “Our Father.” And whatever our experiences with our own fathers are like, for the most part, we intuitively understand what a father should be like.
There’s a lot of married couples at our church who’ve recently had their first kids. Sophomore year, my mentor and his wife had their first child, a boy. And watching them interact as the infant grew up into a toddler--the father was again and again filled with joy at seeing his child do the silliest things. Like the child could literally just be sitting there in his little chair and for no apparent reason, the father would pick him up out of delight and hold him up and make those unintelligible noises that adults make toward children. Even when the toddler started getting rebellious (something like playing with his food), such behavior was met with discipline that was both stern and tender.
And then you know how parents are always trying to get their kids to talk to them--it’s this significant milestone when the kid says his first words. And it’s the father’s great delight to hear his growing kid say “Dada.”
And I saw all that and wondered to myself: Could that really be the way that God is to me? Could it really be that He wants to hear from me? And Jesus’ resounding answer in the Scriptures is “Yes.” We are instructed and invited to pray, “Da-da! Our Father,” and to address God Himself in this incredibly relational and intimate language. Of course, we’re not literally just supposed to pray saying “Dada” and mumbling baby-talk nonsense (unless that's how you do and if so, ¯\(ツ)/¯). We’re adults for crying out loud (pun intended). Use your words. He gave them to us. But still--this is where prayer, where talking to and relating to God, all begins.
He isn’t a God out to get us, full of arbitrary rules and regulations. He isn’t a distant God who must be chanted at to increase our chances of getting heard. He is Our Father in heaven. This is where prayer begins. This is where my Christian life began.
* For those of you wondering: no, I didn’t need to stay up past midnight to finish writing this and no, my editor wasn’t breathing down my neck. I went to sleep at a reasonable hour (as you should), and finished it the next day.
Josh de la Paz (class of 2019, Berkeley a2f) is a card-carrying biochem nerd, a professional software tester, and now, apparently, an amateur blog writer. In his free time, he likes cooking, singing while walking around the house, and taking long walks through nature.