“But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask.”
Matthew 6:6-8 (Common English Bible)
What does Jesus say about prayer? It is important to return to Jesus’ teaching, as there is much foolish talk about prayer. Some of that talk is in its favor but develops in directions unknown to Jesus, such as finding the right structure or cadence that elevates the effectiveness of prayer. Other talk appeals to reason that suggests that prayer only shapes a positive mental attitude and no more. Neither conversation is helpful for a person of faith – a person who believes the Jesus of the Bible continues to be available to God’s people today as the risen Christ. In this teaching on prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus assumes that God’s people will pray. On that assumption, Jesus makes two common sense observations – two basics of effective prayer.
Jesus first asks that any prayer be a sincere prayer. Honest, genuine prayer is a conversation with God, no one else. Prayer that is offered in a manner that hopes for or anticipates an audience is not authentic. Rather than a conversation with God, such prayer is for show. God’s response to prayer is of little importance – if at all. What is sought is the adulation and praise of another. The dominant desire is to advance a positive impression upon those who are near when the prayer is spoken. According to Jesus, the reward that is offered by the audience will be the only response to such prayers. God is not the primary audience of such prayers, so a response from God should not be expected.
Second, we must not indulge in repetitions – repeating a prayer over and over as though the flood of words will make a deeper impression on God. Jesus tells us that such repetitions become “empty” words. God will not be forced by such a pattern of prayer. Saying a prayer twenty, fifty, or a hundred times cannot unlock God’s gracious movement toward us. God desires a relationship, not one that is manipulated or cajoled by the repetition of pious expressions. Once again, Jesus is appealing to our common sense, appealing to us to approach God as we would a close friend. It would be ridiculous to approach anyone we are close to with a request that is made over and over again. That simply would not be very pleasing.
Prayer is communion with God. The aim of prayer is a deeper relationship with God – not drawing the attention of others or supposing the God who placed the stars in the sky and every living thing upon the earth can be harnessed by pious phrases. Jesus wants us to know that if we desire to draw near to God, that desire must come from a sincere heart. Standing in a public place while praying, seeking the notice of others, and searching for some magical formula to draw God’s attention isn’t sincere. Nor would we use either approach to draw near someone we cared about. A heart that is affectionate, attentive, and genuine is one that captures the same from another. This is the prayer that captures the heart of God.