Jesus was praying in a certain place, writes Luke today, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him: Lord teach us to pray. That’s how a lot of spiritual growth and learning happens, you know. You see some kind of evidence of another person’s connectedness with God – in this case, they saw how Jesus was at prayer – and you say: Hey, I want that. I wish I knew how to be that way. I think I remember the very first time that happened to me. I was in college, I had been a Christian only about a year, and I started babysitting for one of the sopranos in our choir, and you could just feel that she had a connection with God that was alive. I was, at that point, so new to Christian faith that I was not sure whether it was actually OK to ask somebody too many questions about knowing God, but I did talk with her more than once and try to get some coaching.
And this, Luke writes, is what one of the disciples did. He saw how Jesus was, as he connected and communicated with his Father, and he had the courage to ask: how do you do that? Could you teach us?
Jesus answers two ways. He gives them a model, and he works on their conception of God. The model is the prayer that some people call it the Lord’s Prayer, others the Our Father, but whatever you call it, it was Jesus’ thematic outline for his disciples to use as they approached God. It’s unlikely he meant it to be memorized and recited verbatim – you can tell that by the fact that the different Gospels record the same outline of themes, but they don’t record exactly the same text. Still, it works well as a memorized prayer too.
We’ll be referring to that model again later, but I want to look first at the place Jesus spends most of his time: how he works on their conception of God. He uses several images of the way human beings respond to requests: a man who’s asleep but gets up to help out a friend, a parent who fondly gives a child a fish or an egg. So Jesus paints these little images of the God he knows, trying to show us who God is and how we should think of him. And Jesus also gives the disciples promises, which themselves reveal something about the nature of God: Ask, he says, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. When you put the images and the promises together, what do they tell us he’s trying to do? He’s trying to convince them, both by images and by promises, that God cares and that he will answer with things that he knows to be good.
The way people pray, or don’t pray, reveals a great deal about how they conceive God to be. To pray as a Christian, you need to know who God has told us through Christ that he is. For petitionary prayer, prayer that makes requests, that means knowing that God cares about specifics, that he is trustworthy and has our best interests at heart, and he will answer with things that he knows to be good. Those are the truths Jesus is getting at in his stories and in his statements.
Petition isn’t the only kind of prayer, of course: there is adoration, thanksgiving, contemplative prayer, liturgical prayer, and so on – and all of those tie in with different truths God has revealed about himself in Scripture. But here, Jesus is teaching mostly about prayer that makes requests of God. Petitionary prayer. If you listen to people’s petitions, often they reveal an idea of God that doesn’t match what Jesus says God is like; that clashes with the picture Jesus is painting for us here. People so often are actually praying to a God of their own invention, who is like what they imagine a God ought to be like. Often this means either less interactive than the God Jesus invites us to know, or less likely to have our best interests at heart, or more narrow and partisan, or less trustworthy.
Often people pray in ways that sound like they are imagining a God who isn’t as actively involved as the God Jesus reveals, or who might not want the best for them, or who is much more vague and inaccessible than what Jesus shows us. The first step in learning to pray, for most of us as Christians, is noticing whether we believe that God is who Jesus says he is; then we can experiment with acting as if we did believe that and seeing what happens.
Now I say this because I have to preach this to myself regularly. I’m drawn to contemplative prayer and to adoration, but all too often my verbal prayers are kind of generic; all too often I fail to bring the specifics of this world and of my own life into conversation with the presence of God. And when I do that, what eventually happens is that it dulls my awareness; I begin to get misled and think: Nothing is going on spiritually. Life is really just up to me. And that’s when I have to remind myself: knock, and the door will be opened. Seek and you will find. Even on the days when you feel like you don’t believe that, just do it.
God wants to share our whole lives in all their specifics, and it’s when we let him do that that we really experience him as active and powerful. Certainly it is important that we perform the work of intercession for this broken world, that we lift up broad and public concerns to God. We were talking about that last week. However, you’ll hear people claim that it is more spiritually mature only to pray in a general way, not to “bother God” by praying about yourself and your life experiences and your needs. It’s not; for a Christian it’s actually more spiritually immature to withhold them from God -- unless we want to declare ourselves more mature than Jesus, I suppose.
Look at that model prayer Jesus gave, the Our Father. Jesus himself in his model requires that we pray for our needs, every day at the very least. If you say the daily office, you pray for these needs more than once a day: give us today our daily bread. Forgive us what we did wrong. Spare us times of trial. Those are very concrete needs, and Jesus asks us to make a habit of sharing them with God often.
Is it a more mature relationship with your spouse or your best friend to avoid telling them what you do all day? Is it a more mature relationship with to hide from them the ordinary concerns that really preoccupy you? Of course not. How, then, could it possibly be a more mature relationship with God, who knows us better and cares about us more than any human being ever could? If we don’t bring the details of our lives to God, we can end up believing in a God who doesn’t know or care about the details of our life. If we don’t offer him access to what actually involves us personally, we can end up believing in a God who doesn’t get personally involved. And whichever deity that might be, it is not the God who became flesh in Jesus to save us.
The Australian Trappist monk Michael Casey, a respected teacher on prayer in the Western tradition, talks about this. He is an expert on contemplative practices, but he also writes: Petition is important because it signals our acceptance of incompleteness and our desire to receive from God what we cannot ourselves supply… Sometimes I pray guilelessly for a parking place. This may seem like a frivolous request, but to me it is a real if minor need, and to try hiding it from my Father would be a denial of the love between us.
Does he always get his minor need met, or do we always get whatever it is we’re telling God about our desire for? Anyone who has tried it knows that the answer is no, although when we pray, sometimes very surprising, even funny, things happen. What we do always get, though, is a step closer to that kind of relational intimacy with God that Jesus’ disciples saw in him, the vivid spiritual connection that made them say “How do you do that? Could you teach us?” And that’s the real goal. When you engage with God, you always get AN answer, just as you always get an answer from a truly loving spouse. That answer isn’t always “I’m going to give you exactly what you say you think you need right now,” but there is always response, always connection. Sometimes very dark connection, or frustratingly unexpected connection, or very challenging connection – sometimes bright and arrestingly clear, too -- but always connection.
I said the first step in learning to pray was coming to understand who we are addressing, who God is, what he has told us about himself in Scripture and by coming to us in Christ. And the second step is simply praying. The more you do it, the better it goes. The less you do it, the more difficulties and doubts and issues you will believe you’ve got. Ask, Jesus says, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. If you know how to give good things, how much more will your heavenly Father give? God can be trusted to have your best interests at heart, he cares about the whole creation as well as about the tiniest details of your life, and he longs to connect with you far more than you want to connect with him. If you’d rather not believe that, all you have to do is avoid praying.