For most of my life, two of the Bible’s most important verses on prayer have been lost on me. I must have been distracted by the more famous verses on prayer that immediately followed.
How many of us know “The Lord’s Prayer” by heart, in the King James Version of Matthew 6:9–13, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . ”? But before Jesus models prayer for us, he teaches us to pray in the two previous verses. And two thousand years of accumulated tradition and repetition may have clouded Christ’s expressed principles at work in his now-famous example prayer.
Ironically, at least for me, what Jesus says immediately before was long drowned out by the same mindless repetition he so clearly disavows in the preamble:
“When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7–8)
Against Our Gentile Instincts
As fallen humans, we can understand why Jesus would need to steer us away from heaping up empty phrases. We are prone to this. Apart from God’s special revelation to us, this is our Gentile-instinct in seeking to petition the divine. Like the prophets of Baal at Carmel, we expect that calling on the deity “from morning until noon” and limping around the altar (1 Kings 18:26), even cutting ourselves in our own ways (1 Kings 18:28), might win us an ear in heaven. And apart from God’s special work in us, we’re liable to turn the Lord’s Prayer itself into the very thing Jesus warns against in the same breath.
One aspect, among others, that’s so amazing about Jesus’s model prayer in Matthew 6:9–13 (and Luke 11:2–4) is its simplicity and terseness. Jesus manifestly does not “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.” He does not pretend to be heard for his many words.
Arts, Thys, and Trespasses?
In our English, Jesus’s sample prayer is a mere fifty words, and only four sentences. Can you remember the last time, if ever, you heard a public prayer so simple, unpretentious, and to the point? And this straight from the mouth of our Savior himself.
Maybe it’s the arts, thys, and trespasses of old English that allow us to think such a manifestly simple prayer could be a kind of pagan incantation offered bead after bead on a rosary, or on bended knee before a football game. We could memorize a more contemporary version to guard us against the wrong impression. But most likely, the issue is deeper, and we haven’t yet really owned the remarkable freedom into which Jesus invites us — or deeply known the gracious Father to whom he sends us.
Free to Pray Simply
Liberty from heaping up worn and empty phrases, and from many words, is the glorious freedom in which we walk as children of the Father. When we pray — note Jesus’s when, not if — we come to a God who already has initiated toward us. We never introduce ourselves to his highness for the first time, or reintroduce ourselves suspecting he’s too important and busy to remember our name. Prayer is not a conversation we start, but a response to the God who speaks first, calls first, and claims us as his own, even before we return interest in faith and prayer.
We are free to abandon our empty, evangelical stock-phrases, and free from needing many words, extending our requests to a certain length to impress, because in Christ, we already are known, loved, cherished, and secure. We are not unknown citizens approaching a distant dignitary, but children drawing near to “our Father.”
Reverent and Spiritual
This doesn’t mean we approach with anything less than reverence. He is, after all, our Father in heaven. And if children should respect their earthly fathers, how much more we our heavenly Father? Simple, childlike language doesn’t mean flippancy, frivolity, or nonchalance.
And simple language doesn’t mean carnal petitions. What a jarring aspect of Jesus’s prayer! While his model prayer is manifestly and liberatingly simple, the content is not. At least it’s not natural. Instead of starting with daily bread, Jesus begins with the hallowing of God’s name, not ours, and the coming of God’s kingdom, not man’s. These are the longings and expressions of born-again hearts, not the whispers of the worldly.
Without the new birth, we will pray, if we pray, with pretense (and unholy length), and with the same carnal desires as anyone else in the world. But with the new birth, we will pray — not if, but when — with simplicity and profundity, with new desires for God and his honor.
Our God Loves to Give
Jesus doesn’t just warn us of empty phrases and many words, but he tells us why: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). God’s foreknowledge is no reason to keep silent. That’s not Jesus’s logic but exactly the opposite. Our Father already knowing what we need is an impetus to pray — and to use simple, direct language — because he doesn’t only know our needs, but he is our Father, who loves his children, and wants to meet our needs.
In the end, how we pray says a lot about how we view our God. Do we already have his attention, or suspect we need to flag him down? Do we assume he is suspicious of our needs, or that he is pressured to meet them from a limited supply in the midst of increasing demand? Is he distant or near? Is he sovereign and good? Is he just and merciful?
Even Better Than We Ask
When Christians pray, we pray as those who have been freed from praying like the world. We pray as those who first have heard from our God in his word, who have embraced his gift of unsurpassed grace in the person of his Son, and who have no need to earn his favor with our repetition, posturing, and pretense.
Rather, we can ask simply, as children. We can ask profoundly, with new hearts trained on him, not just the things of earth. And we can ask with humble confidence knowing that our Father already knows our needs, and knows them even better than we do, and is even more committed than we are to meeting them in the deepest and most enduring ways.