Christ, on Prayer
If you are reading this article, no matter what your faith tradition, chances are you've heard the Lord's Prayer. The Our Father. The centerpiece of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, wherein He instructs His disciples on the purpose, the context, and the art of prayer.
Right after he tells them to hide it.
As it turns out, Christ was not a fan of public prayer, or at least public prayer that is meant to be seen. And that's not the only command that might surprise those used to seeing the way televangelists and football players pray now. Following are a list of some of the instructions Christ gave in that same sermon.
1. Pray privately, "in secret."
This was the command Christ gave to open the section of the Sermon on the Mount concerning prayer. He said:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Mt. 6:5-6, NRSV).
Not only do Christ's words reflect this message, but also He lived this practice. Before Christ went out to preach in Galilee, for example, he went to a private place to pray, for long enough that all his disciples went searching for him (Mk. 1:35-37). Christ prayed alone frequently enough that Luke described it in terms of an ongoing occurrence ("Once when Jesus was praying alone..." [Lk 9:18]). And of course, famously, just before He was betrayed and turned over for trial, Christ prayed alone at Gethsemane (Mt. 26:39; cf. Mk 14:35, Lk. 22:39-45).
2. "Do not heap up empty phrases."
Christ wanted prayer to be simple. Somewhere in the intervening two thousand years, not only has prayer become a public spectacle for some, but also it has become loaded with repetitions of different names for God, repeated requests only slightly rephrased, the word "just" followed by broken phrases, and so on. All of this together makes a sort of poetic cadence that appeals to certain audiences, but this practice would have appalled Christ:
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 (Mt. 6:7-8).
The Lord's Prayer itself is explicitly offered as an alternative to this kind of empty prayer (Mt 6:9). In fact, the majority of instances in scripture where Christ prays, he prays only a few simple words (e.g. Mt. 11:25-26, Mt. 27:45, Lk. 22:42, Lk. 23:46).
3. Use prayer to forgive.
The two instructions given before the Lord's Prayer make it clear what not to do, but then immediately after the Lord's Prayer is given, Christ gives a clear instruction on what to do.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Mt. 6:14-15).
This too, Christ exemplified in action. Among the last words recorded, while Christ was nailed the cross enduring unimaginable pain, He said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34).
4. Keep knocking
In Luke, the next subject Christ turns to after giving the Lord's prayer is a parable about how prayer works. In the parable, Christ talks about waking a neighbor to borrow some bread in order to show hospitality for a guest in your home. Christ says the neighbor might not open the door immediately, but if you are persistent, eventually he will (Lk. 11:5-8). This leads Christ to the famous conclusion, "ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you" (Lk. 11:9; cf. Mt. 7:7). A good example of this is the longest prayer attributed to Christ, from the Gospel of John, just before He was betrayed and executed. In this prayer (Jn. 17), Christ asks for the power ("glory") to give "eternal life to all people," (Jn. 17: 1-5); asks for intercession on behalf of His disciples (6-19); and asks for intercession on behalf of all believers (20-27). Fittingly, the things Christ requests for his disciples and believers are joy, truth and love.
In the end, none of this should be a surprise. The simplicity; the humility; the themes of forgiveness, joy, truth and love--all these things are very much in keeping with the gospel of Christ as we know it. But somewhere in the past 2000 years, Christian culture has strayed from these very basic instructions. The time has come for us to find our way back.