SCRIPTURE – Matt. 6:5-8
“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. 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. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think 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.
Sermon Series: Talking to God
The Dos and Don’ts of Prayer
March 20, 2011
Today, we continue our sermon series about the nuts and bolts of prayer. As you may remember, last week we talked about why we pray, and I made the point that there really is no wrong way to pray. While we can never pray the perfect prayer, because of the Spirit’s interceding on our behalf, we can never pray a not-good-enough prayer.
I believe that is true, but I also think there is more to be said about how we pray. While the scope of what constitutes an effective prayer is huge, there are limits. We can’t just bow our heads and close our eyes and say anything we want and have it count as a prayer. Prayer is meant to be sacred speech, something we would feel comfortable saying to God. Not all prayers meet that criteria.
Here’s an example. On the show “30 Rock,” Alec Baldwin plays a smarmy TV executive named Jack Donaghy. In this particular episode, Jack is dating Elisa, played by Selma Hayek, and for Valentine’s Day he had made reservations at Plunder, a very posh and exclusive restaurant. But Elisa, being a good Catholic, insists they go to church first. Jack knows this could make them late, but when Selma Hayek asks you to go to church with her, you don’t argue.
While in worship, just as the priest is about to begin the Lord’s prayer, Jack calls his assistant Jonathan to let him know that he and Elisa aren’t going to make it to the restaurant on time. Instead of using his cell phone during worship, which would be grounds for eternal damnation, Jack tries to pass off his conversation with Jonathan as a conversation with God. Holding the phone between his hands during the prayer, he says this:
“Our Jonathan, who art in the office, hallowed be my reservation. If you are able, hold my table, at Plunder as we will not be there by seven. Have them delay our heavenly dessert, and forgive us our lateness as we forgive those who cause lateness against us.” I don’t pretend to know how God thinks, but I’m not sure that prayer made it all the way up to Heaven. That scene highlights an issue I think we run into a lot with prayer. It’s not so much a problem of what we pray but the motivation behind our prayers. The “30 Rock” story is the modern equivalent of what we hear Jesus warning against in our scripture today.
In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is instructing the crowd on how to live out their faith and build their relationship with God, and he warns them against public displays of ostentatious spirituality. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were guilty of praying in such a way that others would be sure to hear just how pious they were. There was one Jewish prayer which actually began with sixteen different adjectives attached to the name of God. Do you remember how in college you would try to stretch a five-page term paper into a 10-page term paper by using a lot of really, really, really, really big words? That’s what the religious leaders were doing with their prayers.
Instead, Jesus says to go in a room and close the door and pray to God, so that no one else can hear you. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is outlawing all public prayer; in fact, Jesus prays publicly on several occasions in the gospels. I believe what Jesus is saying here is that no matter who’s listening, our prayers are between us and God. We are not speaking so that others may hear and be impressed. Nor do we need to worry about being judged by others for the quality of how we pray. God is the only audience for our prayers.
Jesus also warns against praying like the pagans, who think they will be heard because of their many words. We’ve all suffered through prayers where the person praying was trying to bludgeon God into acquiescence through sheer stamina, as if praying long enough will somehow wear God down and make God give into our demands. And praying to God that Rosco will stop wearing that orange tie with that green shirt while Rosco is standing right next to you isn’t a prayer. Prayer is not a means of manipulation, either of God or of other people.
Instead, prayer is a privilege. Before Jesus came along, the main relational connection between Jews and their God was through the temple priests. If you wanted to pray or needed to ask forgiveness, you did so by presenting yourself to the temple priests and offering a sacrifice. You couldn’t call the CEO directly; you had to go through customer service.
But because of Jesus’ sacrifice, that intermediate step was rendered unnecessary. When Christ died on the cross, the gospels say the temple curtain was torn in half. That curtain represented the separation between the people and God. So through Jesus, that separation no longer existed. Through Jesus, we are given a direct line to the top. We don’t have to talk to customer service, we don’t have to sit on hold and listen to Muzak or angels playing their harps. Prayer is our direct connection to the power of God.
Therefore, it is to be used wisely and reverently. We’re talking to God! That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share with God things we consider trivial or insignificant. Instead, I believe God likes to hear about the details of our lives. God rejoices in every aspect of our relationship. But because we’re talking to God, we need to pray in a way that will honor God. Prayer is not an entitlement and it’s not to be taken for granted. We don’t have the right to pray and we shouldn’t pray like we deserve the answer we want. We shouldn’t give God ultimatums or paint God into a corner. Prayer is meant to be an ongoing conversation with God, but too often prayers are offered as if they are wish lists for Santa Claus.
Here’s an example. A man was heading to the post office to mail a package. He was in a big hurry, so on the way there he prayed, “Dear God, please let the line move fast so I can get on with my day.” When he got to the post office, miraculously there was no line and he walked right up to the counter and was out of there in 15 seconds. As he was leaving, he prayed with a big smile, “Dear God. Never mind. There wasn’t a line.”
This man’s error was not one of arrogance but of acknowledgement. The only beneficiary of his prayer was himself, which is inherently selfish. And he probably thought he got in and out so fast because of his good timing or sheer luck. I wonder how often we pray something and then forget that God answers our prayers, even if it’s not the answer we’re looking for?
Now, let me state right now that I don’t believe God answers prayers about post office lines. I think one of the don’ts of prayer is to not give God credit or blame for things that should rest on our shoulders. Often times we pray for God to alter reality when we’re the ones who created the situation in the first place. One Christmas my aunt gave our daughter Sydney a gift she had really been wanting. When Sydney told her how much she wanted this present, my aunt exclaimed, “Praise the Lord! God let me right to that toy in the store.” And I wanted to say, “Couldn’t God have led you to a flat-screen TV?”
Yes, I believe God is with us and watches out for us and protects and guides us. And yes, I believe all good things come from God. But when we start giving God all the credit for the good decisions we make, we also open up the door to making God the scapegoat for all the bad decisions we make.
We have been given the gift of prayer, not to ask for what we want, but to ask for what God wants. We’ll talk about this more in the next couple weeks. The ultimate goal of any of our prayers should be for God’s will to be done. There’s a difference between praying for ourselves and praying selfishly. I often close my prayers by saying, “In Jesus’ name.” That’s not just a formulaic, involuntary saying. When we pray, we are challenged to make sure that whatever we are saying can be said in the name of our Lord. Can we ask for healing in Jesus’ name? Of course. That’s praying for ourselves. Can we giving thanks for our lives in Jesus’ name? Sure. ourselves. Can we ask for an open parking space in Jesus’ name or for a flat-screen TV in Jesus’ name? To me, that’s a misuse of the privilege. That’s praying selfishly.
An effective prayer points to God by acknowledging God’s healing power or giving thanks to God for God’s work in our lives. In fact, how we come to prayer should be equivalent to how we should come to worship: humble, reverent, expectant, hopeful. Did you come here hopeful today? Did you come expecting that God was going to meet you here? Or is this just another worship, like our prayers are just another prayer? We don’t come to prayer or worship with an attitude of, “OK, what can you do for me?” “Exalt me, God, because I’m so great.” “Find me that perfect parking space.” We come to worship and to prayer with the expectation that God is present and active, regardless of the outcome. In our prayers, if we come as ourselves, not trying to be someone bigger or better or more faithful than we actually are, we leave room for God to be God. God doesn’t want some more pious, wordier version of us. God wants us, in all our imperfect glory. Pray with humility, pray with confidence, pray with hope. And then leave room and trust that God is at work.