It is no surprise when we are ridiculed as Christians. That is just the way it happens, just as it has been prophesied. And many aspects of the Christian life are ridiculed to a large extent but the one aspect that I find that is ridiculed a lot more than others, though this is only my own observation, is prayer.
One of the comments that frustrates me the most is when people say two hands working can do more than a thousand together in prayer because such a phrase shows how much we have come to misunderstand prayer itself. So, hopefully, in my own finite ways, God will teach us something today.
When we think about prayer, what do we imagine? A church with closed eyes, clasped hands and bowed heads? A lone voice speaking on behalf of the masses? A few silent but moving mouths in prayer? When I think about the way prayer is portrayed today, I ask myself whether my prayer will be any less valuable if my eyes are open and my arms outstretched.
But let's take a step back for a moment, and look at something we are far more familiar with found in Mathew 6:5-6:
“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." (NIV)
In Jesus' sermon on the mount, we hear Him reminding us to be secretive in the way we serve. And it seems quite clear why He would warn us of this because our incredible vulnerability to pride. Whether its giving to the poor or praying out loud, if we are not careful, we can lead ourselves to become prideful in our ways and in doing so we miss out on a godly reward that He has in store for us.
Now, don't get me wrong here. I believe public prayer within church is a beautiful thing. What I am meaning is that we must guard our hearts, as we are so often reminded of in Scripture. Prayer is not something God has provided for our own personal gain and it is so, so much more than empty words spoken from a prideful heart. But prayer, as we will later look at, is as much concerned about our own changing hearts, as it is about our spoken words.
This leads us with no surprise to what Christ says in the following two verses:
"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." (NIV)
I'm not much of a Bible scholar compared to some but I would assume that the same people who prayed in public to gain an earthly reward are the same ones called 'pagans' who babbled on. And I don't think there's much interpretation needed here as Christ couldn't be much clearer than this. God knows us better than we know ourselves so how could we fool Him by trying to repeat the same request in five different ways or that by making our prayer ten minutes longer, that He is bound to hear us for certain.
I don't mean to crticise anyone with those words. I know that in our times of distress we can do nothing more than beg for His mercy and cry out to Him repeating the same words that express our pain.
What this leads us to conclude is that Christ desires sincerity. As we are told in Hebrew 10:22 to draw near with a sincere heart and in the final chapter of James, that it is the prayer of a righteous man that prevails.
But I want to take this chance to raise an interesting question about prayer that this passage in Matthew begs an answer for.
If God is sovereign in His ways, if He is all-knowing that He should not need some human request in order to make the right choice, if He is bound to act on the behalf of the good of those who love Him, then why do we pray?
For some of you, passages of Scripture will quickly come to mind where it feels as though God has changed His mind: Abraham's requests of behalf of the few righteous or Moses' prayer on behalf of the Israelites. It feels as though, somehow, based on these passages, God is able to change His mind and since His ways are perfect, then He would have made a mistake had He not changed His mind based on the request of His servant!
And if that were so, then He is prone to being imperfect which would leave us with a serious theological issue.
But this... this is where prayer gets interesting. This is where we come back to the purpose of prayer, because prayer is a conversation. Prayer is as much about listening to God, as it is about speaking.
If it were not so, then what would be the purpose of such passages as 1 Thessalonians 5:16 where we are told to "pray without ceasing" (NIV).
I don't intend on talking 24/7 without taking a moment to listen.
So then, if prayer is as much about listening as it is about talking, then perhaps its more than the supposed idea that God changes His mind at our request.
Perhaps it simply has more to do with us allowing Him to change us instead.
If we take a moment and look at the way Scripture presents the way we receive gifts from God, what does it say?
Matthew 7:11 NIV, "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?"
Again and again, Scripture tells us to ask and receive. And if we look at Philippians 4, we see that 'the peace that transcends all understanding' comes as a result of prayer and petition to God.
Just like any conversation with someone, when you share your deepest concerns, you open yourself up to them and in turn, their counsel can change you. Why should this be any different with God? If we share our deepest desires, hopes and concerns, then He is just as able to change our hearts.
The more we ask and cry out with a sincere heart, then will He not change us?
The more I think about the supposed instances where God seemed to change His mind, the more I believe those moments were more about God changing the hearts of men, than men changing God.
There is so much more than can be said about prayer and even in saying all of this I feel as though I have barely touched the surface of matters, but I want to bring this message round in full circle before I finish.
It feels as though Scripture does not present this idea of bowed heads, closed eyes and clasped hands when it comes to prayer. If anything, when it speaks of how to pray, Scripture is more concerned with the internal than the external.
So then why do we do it? Is not prayer with open arms, heads lifted high and eyes open wide just as valid?
Regardless of how we choose to pray and in the manner we choose to not only cry out, but to also listen, God, above all else, desires our sincere attention. It seems all too simplistic to say that by closing our eyes we close off the distractions that can hinder us from hearing God, but at the same time it seems all the more true. Now, I don't claim to know the origins behind such traditions with prayer but I would be willing to say that this reason can be just as valid.
And again, why else would we bow our heads other than to show reverence to this awesome God we serve?
Wholehearted attention and reverence. He deserves nothing less, and in view of His majesty, a prideful heart and empty words seem like nothing but foolishness.
But prayer goes much deeper than words, and at times it seems all to true that just as many unspoken prayers are answered as those which are spoken. But that's a whole other message for next week.
God bless you all.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 NIV