Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,
Everyone likes a good show. Theatre. Movies. Television. A good story line draws us in. And a good actor has a way of commanding our attention.
Brittney and I are currently re-watching “the Office” on Netflicks. Steve Carrell absolutely nails his role in that show. His portrayal of Michael Scott, the narcissistic boss, is brilliant and hilarious. Brittney and I laugh our heads off. That man deserves a standing ovation.
But what is good on T.V. is not so praiseworthy in real life. Its one thing to play an actor in a show; its another thing to act your way through life.
A hypocrite is someone who acts. Their life has become theatre. They present one way in public, but backstage they are a different person.
In these passages, Jesus is warning us about the dangers of hypocrisy, specifically with respect to our religious devotion. “Be careful,” Jesus says. “Be careful.” Remember your primary audience is God, not your peers. Remember the purpose of your devotional is to draw closer to your Father in heaven, not attain status within the body of Christ.
Its easy to put on a performance in front of our peers. But our act doesn’t fool God. God sees the heart.
Because prayer is so central to the life of faith, its an easy target for abuse. Spiritual people pray. So if you want to look like a spiritual person and win the approval of other spiritual persons, all you have to do is talk about your prayer life, say “I’ll pray for you”. Or, you just have to pray at the right times and places, with the right amount of emotional intensity, using the approved buzz words.
“Be careful,” says Jesus. Don’t go down that path.
Two things are to be avoided when it comes to prayer. First, Jesus warns us to avoid the show. And second he tells us to avoid babbling on and on.
The religious leaders of Jesus day were guilty of showcasing their faith through prayer. They loved to pray on the street corners, and in the synagogues. Many of them in public, not because they loved conversing with God, but because that was a way to secure prestige in their circles.
Now, the Rabbis of Israel insisted that Jewish people shouldn’t pray loudly in public. They were taught to pray quietly to not disturb others. But even a prayer prayed quietly in public, is still a public display of devotion.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with praying in public. Its good that we pray together here. Jesus wouldn’t object to you praying before a meal if you’re out at a restaurant.
The question to ask is… what is motivating you? Where is your heart?
Are you praying to connect with God. Or praying to be seen as one who prays?
One way to get at the orientation of your heart is to examine the discrepancies that exist between your private prayers and your public prayers. If you only ever pray in public and never in private, then chances are that you are more concerned with looking good, than actually being a good.
Or how about this… Do you pray any differently when you guests over for dinner? I have noticed that my pre-meal prayers are longer when I have an audience, and shorter when its just me and my family. What’s that about Salverda? What’s going on in my heart?
Showing off with prayer may win you the applause of your peers, but it doesn’t impress your Father in heaven.
Dallas Willard has a pithy way of describing what happens to us when our prayers become theatre. The Ego swells, he says. But the heart shrivels.
The second thing to avoid in prayer is endless babble.
Babble. You know what prayer babble sounds like, right? Its a lot of religious sounding banter, with little substance. Its a bunch of Christian words hitting the fan and being spewed all about. And the louder the person prayer prays, and the more times they pray it, there better the chances that God will hear it.
1st century pagans practiced this kind of prayer in their religious life. They believed that the way to get the attention of the gods was to keep at it. Keep talking. Keep making bargains with the heavens. They believed that they could twist the arms of their gods through excessive words and sacrifices.
We see this type of prayer displayed dramatically in the showdown that takes place between God and Baal on Mount Carmel in 1st Kings 18.
The priests of Baal spent hours calling upon the name of Baal. And when Baal doesn’t answer them, they up the ante. They start cutting themselves. They pray louder.
And Elijah just mocks them. Maybe your god is on vacation. Maybe he’s deep in thought. Shout louder!
They do, but still Baal doesn’t come to their aid. In contrast to the prayers of Baal, Elijah prays a simple short prayer. “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” he prays. “Let it be known today that you are God. Display your power so that these people will turn back towards you.”
More words, prayed with emotional intensity, doesn’t equal more attention from our Father in Heaven. In fact, those who ramble on in prayer sometimes even treat God like he’s a pagan god. Our Father in heaven doesn’t need to be pestered into action. And we don’t need to work ourselves into a hot and holy mess in order to get his attention. He listens when we call on his name. He knows our request before we even ask.
On the surface, this little detail about God knowning seems make render prayer unnecessary.
Why say things to God when God already knows?
I suppose this could be a hindrance to a robust prayer life. But it could also encourage it. I mean, isn’t it true that we talk most freely with the people that know us best. Your best friend probably knows what you’re going to say before you say it. But still, you share. Still, you talk. Their knowing you doesn’t diminish the conversation. It enhances it.
What this means is that we don’t have to brief God about what’s going on in our life. Instead of getting God up to date, we can focus on pouring out our hearts and making our petitions known.
So, if praying for show, and babbling on are both no no’s when it comes to prayer, what’s the right way to pray.
Well says Jesus… 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. Matthew 6:6
The word “room” here is a technical term. The literal translation is “supply room”. Most farms in 1st century Palestine had a supply room. Tools were kept in this room, food supplies. It was a storage closet of sorts. And, since valuable stuff was stored there, it was probably the only room in the house equipped with a lock.
So, it was a quiet place to go. A place you could go and lock the door. Nobody would see you. Nobody would hear you. Just you and God and household supplies.
Jesus words are radical. Israel’s prayer life was always directed towards Jerusalem. Always revolving around the Holy of Holies where God’s presence was thought to reside.
But Jesus says, go to your utility closet and lock the door.
What matters is no longer proximity to the temple, what matters is that your spirit makes contact with the living God, who is Spirit.
Not all of prayers need to be prayed in this secret place. There’s still a place for communal prayer. And a good prayer meeting.
But our gathered prayers need to be rooted in our supply closet prayer life.
I wonder… Where do you go to commune with your Father in Heaven? What is your ritual for connecting. One on one. No distractions.
I have started to schedule prayer mornings, or prayer afternoons into my monthly calendar. This is time set aside for me to connect with God. I journal out my prayers. I ask God questions. I wait. Then I write some more.
Jesus regularly went on prayer retreats. Over and over again in the scriptures we read about him going away to a quiet place to pray.
There’s something about these secret times and places that delights God. He rewards those who seek his face in secret. He shines his face upon those who seek his face in secret
When people seek the applause of others through prayer, their egos swell, and their hearts shrivel. But when people seek the face of God in prayer, their hearts swell, and their egos shrivel.
So, a secret, solitary prayer life is a key piece to a life of Spiritual vitality.
But when we are communing with God in that secret place, how shall we pray. We know we shouldn’t babble on like the pagans. But how shall we pray?
Pray like this: says Jesus. And please speak this aloud with me:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Matthew 6:9-13
The first thing that struck me about these famous prayer words is their simplicity. There’s no religious babble here. No arm twisting God into action. Just simple requests rooted in simple trust. We want to see God’s fame increase and his Kingdom be manifested on earth. And as we pray for that, we ask God to give us what we need to participate in that mission. Sustenance, forgiveness, protection.
The second thing that struck me about these famous words is the way that they take us out of the spotlight. Not only is there no babble in this prayer, but this prayer de-centres us. It crucifies the me that wants attention.
We so often use prayer to gain the applause of our Christian peers, but this prayer teaches us to pray that God would be applauded. We spend so much of our lives seeking first our own Kingdom, but this prayer calls us to pray that God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will would be done.
The Lord’s prayer dethrones us. It transports us out of our tiny, self-centred lives, and reorients us to God’s mission in the world
But it dethrones us without kicking us out. In fact, it invites us in, to be participants in God’s mission.
Our Father in Heaven. Our Father.
Its no small thing to be able to speak of God using possessive pronouns. To claim God as our own.
The pagans of Jesus day couldn’t do that with their gods. Apollo and Diana weren’t there’s. Appolos and Diana didn’t care about them or belong to them. There was no covenant relationship there.
But Jesus invites us to call his Father, our Father. To approach him, knowing that we belong to him and that he belongs to us.
The whole of the gospel is present in this possessive pronoun.
We who were once far away, estranged from God, have been brought near. The orphans have been adopted. God’s house is now our house. God’s table our table. God’s mission our mission.
How is this so? It is so because God, in Christ, has made it so. Its so because Jesus died to tear down the walls that separate us from God and the walls that separate us from each other. He rose again, the cornerstone of the new house God is building on earth
And with and in him, we can call God our Father.
You don’t have to be good with words. You don’t have to plead with God in order to gain God’s attention.
Rather, you can shut the door to your room, and speak simply to the one who created and redeemed your soul. What an amazing privilege.
Heidelberg Catechism. Q and A, 120.
Q. Why did Christ command us to call God “our Father”?
A. To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer what should be basic to our prayer—a childlike reverence and trust that through Christ God has become our Father, and that just as our parents do not refuse us the things of this life, even less will God our Father refuse to give us what we ask in faith.