Second in a short series on praying in faith
“…they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” – Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded by Mathew
In the last post, the words of Jesus on praying intimately with the Father in heaven were the focus. Now, Matthew 6:7-8 are the focus. In his instructions about the intimate nature of prayer, Jesus set the stage for the next set of directions regarding simplicity in our prayers. “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.”
I like this – “do not heap up empty phrases.” An empty phrase would be anything we add to our communication that is grandiose beyond our normal style, that is meant to sound impressive to others or to make a point. Our God already communicates in every known language and in ways that are not language. Flowery speech and impressive words fall flat with our God. He wants us to speak normally and from the heart.
“They think they will be heard for their many words.” This is a real problem for many believers today. We so easily add words upon words to our prayers, and before long we are telling God what to do and how to do it. Imagine, if you will, the five-year-old who is talking endlessly, telling you how you should be cooking that turkey, and exactly how to make the gravy. It seems at times that this is our approach to praying to our God. Fortunately for us, our God is abundantly patient with us.
This is the kind of praying the 400 prophets of Baal utilized in the showdown between their man-made religion of statues and true faith in the one God of all (recorded in 1 Kings 18). All day, all 400 of them prayed aloud. More and more loudly as the day wore on, we are told. They added all manner of visible signs of earnestness and piety, and nothing happened.
“Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask.” The point is that we are not to add unnecessary words to our prayers. We need not fill God in on the situation, as if He is unaware of what is going on. Nor does He need instructing on what we need or how the answer should be delivered. When the 400 prophets of Baal had exhausted themselves, Elijah prays one simple, short prayer and the answer was immediate. The point here is not that only simple prayers are answered, but that we need not heap up many words in order to be heard. Our God hears all prayers.
When Jesus states that our Father in heaven knows what we need before we ask, the implication is clear – we do not know what we need. Why do we insist on telling our God, who created everything and holds it all together, how to run the world or solve our problems? Most of the time, we really know only what we want, and not what we truly need, for faith, godliness, or any other need or situation. We really know nothing, because we have no way of knowing the details and outcomes of any situation. Unless our God divinely reveals something to us (He does that), we have only our opinions, and they are woefully selfish, short-sighted, and uninformed.
When we remember that Paul in Romans 8:26-27 reminds us that it is not the fitness or eloquence of our prayers that matter, rather the fact that the Holy Spirit is interceding for us in our praying. He in His infinite wisdom and mercy interprets our praying to our God. He knows the mind of God, and the Father knows the Spirit. Our prayers are in much better hands with the Holy Spirit than they could ever be in reliance on our ability to fashion an appropriate prayer.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27
When we overstep and begin to direct our God by our prayers, we are turning the tables in our relationship with Him, treating Him like a servant while we assume the role of an all-knowing master. This derives from our rebellious nature, and when we do it we are operating out of an unsurrendered mindset. We are essentially telling our God, “This is how you need to act; now, get on that.” We dress it up more nicely than that, but at the core this is what we are doing.
As we learned in the last post, our praying is intended mostly as an expression of our intimate communion and companionship with our God. It is not primarily a forum for delivering our “grocery list” of spiritual and temporal wants. Certainly, our God is pleased when we bring our every concern to Him in prayer, yet we need to do so keeping two things in mind. First, our praying is not to be primarily about asking, it is about oneness and relationship first of all. Second, we can keep our petitions simple and short, for it is the work of the Holy Spirit to get our praying right before God and appropriate for the need.
That job is not up to us.
In the next post, we will explore relying on our God to direct us in prayer.