Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Lord, teach us to pray. . .
Nearly everyone I know admits carrying around a load of guilt when it comes to prayer. We do not pray as much as we think we should. We do not pray as transparently as we should. We do not pray as confidently as we should. Perhaps the problem is less to do with the time we have to pray or the courage to pray what is in our hearts or the confidence to say "Amen" as much as it is we are not sure what prayer is supposed to do.
How do you pray if you are not sure why you pray? If we think prayer is to tell God what He does not already know, we have a God problem. If we pray because we need to tell God what we want Him to do, we have a me problem. If we pray to tell God what He already knows, what is the point? So why do we pray? The easy answer is because the Lord commands us and invites us to pray, as the Catechism answers.
Like the disciples of old, we come today to Jesus. "Lord, teach us to pray..." And Jesus teaches us a specific prayer. When you pray, "Say, Our Father...." It is good to pray in your own words but don't think that if you make them up those words are better than the words our Lord has taught us. For it is in the Our Father that God teaches us not only what to say but what prayer is... and, I might add, what it is not.
We pray not to inform God what He does not know. We have a deficient understanding of God if we think Him in the dark about what is in our hearts and on our minds. What kind of God must be told anything in order for Him to know? God knows us and we do not open ourselves to Him. Before we form the words, He hears and knows. Even our sighs and groans ascend to Him as prayer in faith by the Holy Spirit (as St. Paul reminds us).
We pray not to inform God but because we know God already knows and so in prayer we own up to what is in our hearts and on our minds – the bad as well as the good. We pray not to control God for what kind of God can be cajoled and manipulated by our words of pleading or our words of argument? No, we pray because God already knows and our prayers say we know that God knows best and we trust what is His best answer to the needs of our lives and the desires of our hearts.
Now maybe you are wondering how I can say that we do not negotiate or cajole or bargain with God after hearing the words of Abraham on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. But did you actually hear the first paragraph. This whole conversation is set because God knows what He is going to do but Abraham does not. Abraham is here to learn the mercy of God for the Lord has great plans for Abraham that will require Abraham to trust the mercy of God.
We pray not to heap words upon words for effect, as the Pharisees of old, nor to drone on about what we want. We pray because we know God hears and we know He answers. Prayer does not lead us to faith. It cannot. Prayer is faith at work, the exercise of our trust. We pray because God hears and because God hears we know He will answer. Yet this is not where prayer ends. Not by a long shot.
We pray in every prayer "Thy will be done..." I had a person tell me once that he did not want me to pray for him because when I prayed "as the Lord wills" he felt I was giving up on my cause and undermining the case my words were making to get what I asked for. God is not some dictator who only reluctantly dishes out good things to His people. How can you look at the cross and see the suffering of Christ for you then doubt God’s answer to your prayers? How can you stand before the Lord clothed in Christ’s righteousness and then be suspicious of God’s answer to your prayers. No, if evil parents know to give good things to their children, how much more will our Heavenly Father give the Spirit to those who ask Him? And what language does the Spirit pray? Thy will be done! The words of faith!
So in prayer faith says back to God what He has said to us. It is the premise of prayer, of faith, and of all worship. The surest word we speak and pray are the words our Lord has taught us to pray. In prayer we own the concerns of our hearts and what sits in our minds and bring them to the Lord to be addressed by His grace. The cross is what bids us pray in confidence to the Lord and the cross is what seals our prayers. If the Lord of heaven can send His Son into flesh to suffer and die for unworthy and undeserving sinners like me, can I not trust Him to hear and to give me what is right and good and best?
We pray not so much for a specific answer but for the Lord to address us with the grace He has promised us in Christ. Faith has confidence that His grace is enough, is sufficient, and is the right answer to all our wants and needs. To pray "Thy will be done" is to ask the Lord to give us His gracious and loving answer. Prayer is not a means of grace nor is it a magic formula to get what we want from God. Some Christians who lack confidence in the Word planted in water or the bread and cup set apart to be the body and blood of Christ have sought to make prayer into a sacrament, a promise that if you pray rightly, using the right words, with the right attitude in your hearts will compel God to give you what you desire. That prayer does not proceed from right faith. Prayer is an exercise of faith and trust, trusting in the gracious and good will of the Father revealed through His Son. By praying we learn and grow in faith, confident anew that His gracious is sufficient for us and His will is trust worthy and the delight of our hearts.
We do not pray to inform or even direct the Lord. We do not pray to tell Him what He already knows. We pray because that is what faith does, this is how trust operates. Having seen the heart of the Lord revealed in the mercy of His Son, who died for us and rose to deliver to us everlasting life, we pray to trust His grace is enough, His will is good, His answer is best. Thy will be done. Amen.
By praying, we express the faith we confess in the creed, the gracious Triune God. We express the faith that cleansed us and made us new in baptism. We express the faith that meets the Lord in this bread and wine, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. God's good and providential will is what the cross shows us. We pray as an act of trust in the Gospel of the cross for us, for now, and forever. Amen