When You Pray…

The Gospel assigned for today contains the most familiar words of the Christian faith, the Lord’s prayer. The passage continues Jesus’ discussion about performative spirituality on which I commented last week. Jesus has just taught the disciples to be avoid flashy displays of their fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. And now he pushes on, teaching them to keep their prayers simple:

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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This is a passage that sadly often gets weaponized by Christians against other Christians, in the seemingly unending (and silly) battle between those who prefer standardized liturgical prayer and those who prefer freeform prayer. But this really misses the point. The teaching isn’t about form or style, but about content and intent. We don’t need to ramble on, Jesus says, because God already knows our heart. Just say what needs to be said. The more I think about this, the more beautiful a sentiment it is. It’s as though God is singing to us the opening lines from the song “Only Us” from Dear Evan Hansen:

I don’t need you to sell me on reasons to want you,
I don’t need you to search for the proof that I should
You don’t have to convince me
You don’t have to be scared you’re not enough.

God knows what we need. God knows our heart, and our deepest longings. We don’t need to make a case or convince God. God knows what we need and delights in giving it. In the parallel passage to this in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?”

It sounds so simple when Jesus says it, doesn’t it? And yet so many of us seem to tie ourselves up in knots of thoughts and words when we pray. (I wonder sometimes whether we’re trying to convince God or ourselves.)

And so, we ask. But what do we ask for? Despite the poetic language, the petitions in Jesus’ prayer are again simple. We pray for God’s will to be done, we pray for the things we need for today, we ask for forgiveness even as we remind ourselves that we will be judged by the same measure with which we judge others, and we pray to be protected from temptation to evil. Note again that there’s no convincing or pleading in the prayer, just simple petitions for what we need. 

What a beautiful reminder at the end of this first week in Lent.

Blessings on your week head!

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