Jesus on how to pray (and common misconceptions to avoid) - Vince Brackett
Seventh in series: The Sermon on the mount
Unfortunately, this talk's recording was lost due to technical difficulties, but you can read the transcript below.
We continue today working through Jesus' sermon on the mount. This has been an awesomely fun and rewarding series of talks for us to write, so if you’ve missed any I highly encourage you: que up those talks on your favorite podcast app this week - just search for Brown Line Vineyard and subscribe
Last week, Nader brought us to Jesus’ comments about giving to the needy in secret so we can develop a healthy self worth that isn't dictated by the unreliable, moving target of "other people's approval"
Jesus continues this line of thought in what we come to today... just like last week’s passage, he begins with "don't be like the hypocrites" (the Jewish religious elite Pharisees) - this time highlighting the way they pray in public -- seeking status and adoration from others for their religious enthusiasm.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But 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.
The real reward any person might actually get out of prayer, Jesus says, is something you get from God Not from being seen by others as noble or humble or deep or whatever
Jesus then goes on introducing a new critique this time not of the Jewish elite Pharisees but of another religious influence that his listeners would have been familiar with: Greek paganism --
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
A little background on what Jesus is referring to here — the most familiar modern concept to help us understand paganism would be magic - it’s not a perfect parallel, but it’s close. Pagan religion of that time was a lot about controlling or manipulating the universe or God to work in your favor. It was driven by an anxiety that otherwise that won't happen. It was an attempt to unlock the secret formulas to life, to discover and say the magic words (hence Jesus' reference to using many words)...
Evidently this was a common conception of prayer at the time, but Jesus sees it as missing the mark we're all actually hoping for, and he wants to commend to people his version of prayer
Before we get into Jesus’ “how to pray” tutorial (which you may know as “the Lord’s Prayer” or the “our Father”), I first want to follow a thread from Jesus’ world to our world today…
We’re going to do a thought experiment I learned from writer C.S. Lewis (of Narnia fame)… I’m going to give you 4 things, and I want you to classify them into two groups of two, so the things that are alike are together. Religion, Science, Magic, Technology Take a moment to do that in your head…
Nearly everyone classifies science and technology together and religion and magic together. I’m going to guess that was true for nearly everyone here And there is a point to that definitely: science and technology are about data that is verifiable and repeatable, and religion and magic are not
BUT C.S. Lewis suggests there is a deeper classification, and I believe Jesus would agree This is: grouping magic and technology together and science and religion together Magic and technology are both about conforming reality to the human will Science and religion (or prayer, if you will) are both about conforming the human will to reality (to the nature of the universe or to God) Put another way magic and technology are alike because they're both seeking to subdue and control life in order to come out on top, science and religion are alike because they're both seeking humility to find peace in light of the big-ness of life
I take us through this little thought experiment because I think it shows us: even two thousand years removed from Jesus’ comments about Greek paganism, we still often have a “magic-like” conception of prayer I would go so far as to say lot of what is called prayer today (and even taught in Christian settings) I think is actually more like magic than Jesus’ version of prayer. It is trying to teach people that, if they pray the right way, they can conform reality to their will
Now for those of us coming from a more secular background (that’s me… I didn’t grow up being told to pray… I kind of saw prayer as something like superstition), we might think this critique Jesus has about the “magic-like” stuff of ancient Greek paganism isn't an issue for us, BUT I think there is a version of this in secular settings too… The hot take headline The life changing exercise routine doctors and personal trainers don't want you to know (because they'll be out of a job) The 5 things true of every self-made billionaire (that can be true of you too!) The three things you're telling your kids that are ruining them for life The one secret to a happy sex life You ever see headlines like these? This is not so different from magic! Swimming in such messages, we are constantly reaching for the next secret to conform life to our will, to suddenly (magically) swing it for our favor This approach to life keeps us anxious, breeds unhealthy comparison, and keeps us far from humility
So whether the religious or secular pitfall, we as a society, we as individuals, struggle (just as those in Jesus' day) with anxiety, comparison, the desire for quick fixes, the temptation toward control and manipulation to get what we're afraid will escape our grasp… That feels true, yes?
Jesus presents his version of prayer as a life-giving alternative to all this.
That’s what we have here in the “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father”… Let’s read it, and then I want to just expand a bit on it.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
First, a word on the opening address of this prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” Jesus wants to teach his listeners, first and foremost, that a God worth praying to is a God… Who is lovingly parental And whose has a good name (or good reputation) - hallowed means on a level all its own Jesus is demonstrating for his listeners the character of the God he prays to: You never have to fear that you said the wrong thing or didn't say the right thing. "God knows your needs before you ask" - He is not going to withhold from you because you didn't say the magic words or because you didn't perform the incantation correctly or because you didn't read the latest hot take on "the three keys to an awesome prayer life" This is a relationship, not a formula or a magical spell… There are no incantations or "three easy steps" in good relationships… there is only showing up honestly I remember years ago I was counseling a friend on how to start praying Prayer and meditation seemed attractive to him because he was experiencing a lot of stress... he knew I was a praying person so we talk about that... But he'd picked up a not-great-reputation picture of the God of the Bible by the versions of Christian faith he was exposed to in his youth... he was not interested in that God This is especially hard, that the voices that are supposed to give us Jesus' message often just reinforce messages that Jesus seemed to come against. Perhaps you've experienced that. Well I gave him some maybe strange sounding advice for a pastor: Don't pray to that god, I told him Rebuild your picture of God from scratch He was a fan of Jesus, so I encouraged him to start with just one or two positive traits of Jesus - pray to a God that is those one or two things (If I'm remembering right I think the traits he came up with were something like "wants me to grow" and "cares about the poor") Eventually, we will have to build our pictures of god out from there, we can't just stay at two traits forever, just like the first two traits of my wife that I fell in love with could never sustain a lifetime of relationship for us, but two positive traits are a great place to start!
Jesus then models multiple things to pray for This is the kind of prayer most of us are most familiar with - praying as in asking for things or for needs to be met or for help or a change in circumstance He says pray that... That God's kingdom would come and God's will be done on earth as in heaven That we would have our provisions met each day That we can find peace and forgiveness daily, and never put obstacles in the way of others doing the same That we would be protected from evil Perhaps because the words of this prayer have become so familiar in much of our wider culture, we might miss the incredible level of understanding and empathy in these words: Jesus is looking at the world through the same window as us: He clearly sees, just like us, that God's good will is not always done - that people make self-serving, even cruel choices everyday… so he says: pray for God’s will He clearly sees, just like us, that life is not always perfect and full of provision… so he says: pray for your daily bread! He clearly sees that forgiveness is hard… so he says: pray for help to forgive and be forgiven! He clearly sees that diseases, natural disasters, corruption, and injustice seem all around us… so he says: pray for God to deliver us from evil! But this is where we might fall into the "magic" misconception about prayer Again, magic lies to us that we can subdue, manipulate, and control life in order to change it through formulas and uncovering secrets… In the process, it actually tears down people's confidence in God because it makes us think he can change things; he just for some reason won’t... until we've said the arbitrary magic words or performed the arbitrary magic incantation… What kind of a God is that?! Not a caring one! Prayer does the opposite. It builds our confidence that God is in fact caring By inviting us to consider that he has given each and every person, and our prayers, power NOT magical power to compel God to do what he really should do but for some reason won’t BUT spiritual power to participate in the efforts for good God is actively engaged in To me, that’s empowering! When Jesus looks through the same window as us and sees the same challenge and suffering and confusion as us, and then tells us to pray… It’s not because “you know... that would be nice of you to pray”... It’s because our prayers actually can make an impact on all this (PAUSE)
I pray quite a bit about cancer My dad has cancer, I lost my mom to cancer when I was a teenager I hate cancer. Cancer is evil. I believe God is actively engaged in fighting it. And when I pray against it, participation in that fight is exactly what I feel -- I am not a scientist or a doctor, and I don’t have the wealth to be a philanthropist, so it is unlikely that I can have a physical or material impact on the fight against cancer -- it won’t be me who helps discover a cure But the feeling I do have is that I am joining the spiritual power of my prayers to a multifaceted assault on cancer I’m joining the scientists and doctors, of course But also I’m joining other people and the power of their prayers And I’m joining God who is fighting in the ways only he can fight Perhaps my prayer (and all those other people’s prayers) are each just a drop in a bucket… BUT a drop nonetheless
So what do you find yourself praying for? Or what is God asking you to pray more for? I, maybe like a lot of you, find myself praying a lot these days about what I see as corrupt, cruel, not-God’s-will choices being made by a powerful few in our country and world. What if us praying about that makes a difference?
The big picture of what we have here in Jesus’ how to pray tutorial is sort of an answer to the question “why pray?” Why should anyone ever pray in the first place? Jesus’ drive seems to be: because every single day you’re going to experience very real needs and limits - of yourself, of others, of the world around you Experiencing needs and limits is what it means to be human. That’s why to pray Pray because you’re in touch with some real need or limit in you or around you, and you’re ready to be helped The biggest gifts to my prayer life, paradoxically, have been the hardest realizations about myself I remember when I first realized how much anger plays a role in my life… That I am angry all the time, and that the reason that’s been so lost on me is that I am just so used to repressing it and then passive-aggressively releasing it on other people... That was a sobering realization, yes. BUT the upshot of that was me experiencing God! My experience of prayer went through the roof I was definitely in touch with a real need in me once I realized this So now I was talking to God anytime I felt angry (which is basically all the time) God, I realize now why my body is always so tense, why I struggle to express my feelings, why I push people away sometimes… I need help! And that prayer meant I was doing something productive with all my anger… It was no longer bottling up, waiting to be released on an unsuspecting loved one It was working its way through me as I processed with God So, a humbling realization, yes, but a massive gift to my prayer life and my whole life (PAUSE)
Alright, summarizing Jesus on how to pray, I leave you today with three tips for your prayer life: Don't try to build relationship with any God but the real one - the one with a good reputation Believe in the spiritual power of your prayers! When you pray for things, remember you're participating in what a good God is already doing. (You're not convincing or manipulating an indifferent God one way or another with magic words.) Why pray? Pray because you’re in touch with real needs and limits in you or around you, and you’re ready to be helped
Alright I want to pray (with spiritual power) for us right now, and afterward today’s band is going to help us stay in a space of prayer by leading us in song Music is incredibly helpful for this! Engage in whatever way feels best to you: Singing along or just sitting back letting the music hit you.
And also, I want to invite you to be prayed for (again, with spiritual power) by someone on our prayer team They'll be in the middle section of the theater with a lanyard that says prayer team Our prayer team are trained, safe folks, who are here to help you have an interaction with Jesus and receive help from him; No one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice, and everything you share is confidential. Stand with me and I'll pray