THE SECRET PRAYER LIFE
Why God calls us to be more like Clint Eastwood and less like Jonathan Ross when we pray to him.
Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others…Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:5-6)
Jesus’ distaste for the exhibitionist in prayer looks odd from the perspective of a secular culture like ours because people are easily embarrassed by talk of prayer. Sometimes a trauma leads a public figure to say their prayers are with the bereaved and suffering, but only emergencies seem to justify this. We are used to other forms of conspicuous behaviour, like buying fast cars and, more recently, emotional exhibitionism, where people are expected to show how much they care by how much they cry. Spiritual competitiveness, however crass, is with us nevertheless. If nothing compares to our relationship with God, then competing with others over this becomes the ultimate prize. Deeply religious societies, like the one Jesus taught in, are especially prone to it – hence his stern word about conspicuous religion.
Prayer is one of those pursuits which is hindered by over-analysis. It is a vocational rather than an academic discipline. When looked at from the outside, questions flood in: Why pray at all if God knows our needs? Why do some of our deepest prayers go unanswered? How do we know if our prayers for others make a difference, especially if we don’t know them? When looked at from the inside, other priorities take over. All important biblical characters prayed for help. Jesus prayed for help and he gave instructions over how to pray, calling on his followers to discrete, secret and terse intercession. The beauty of prayer is that it doesn’t have to be conspicuous – a truth that works I everyone’s favour when they have needs they would rather not articulate. To go into a room, close the door on the world and pray in secret, as Jesus described, is a wonderful freedom and should make us more aware of the needs of those who lack the critical space to do this because of overcrowding or unsympathetic families.
Jesus’ guidance to pray using few words is intriguing – a call to be more Clint Eastwood and less Jonathan Ross. He thought it was pagan to babble on, where a quantity of words is a poor substitute for a quality of faith. Endless repetition in prayer is often a sign that we are less convinced of our case. Yet this guidance has been misinterpreted by some who think there’s no point talking to God anyway because he knows what we think.
Prayer is the expression of a relationship. Sometimes in a close friendship words don’t need to be spoken; at other times the chatter is constant. Even to speak with God about simple pleasures has its place. If we see a sublime piece of art with someone else, we don’t think: well, she saw it too so what’s the point of talking about it. This is not how conversation functions and the same is true of our relationship with God.
The risk, perhaps, in this kind of relationship is one of selfishness where we speak of our own needs and aspirations endlessly, making a travesty of the duty of intercession. The Lord’s Prayer is so helpful in that it follows a clear structure which begins with praise, continues with mission and ends with our needs. We should enter God’s presence with thanksgiving in our hearts. That we often turn to God only when things have gone wrong means that our first contact with him is too like Alex Ferguson’s with a linesman after a dodgy off-side decision. This is not honouring to God, no matter how tempting it is. We come into his presence as humble worshippers not demanding consumers.
To praise God is subversively to find a new perspective. We are also in a better position to pray that the shape of life in this grieving and unjust world may more truly reflect the outline of his kingdom (your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven). The panorama in front of us is epic in scope and compels a judicious approach where we should be more specific and imaginative than merely saying: ‘Lord, bless Asia’ – even if in principle there is nothing wrong with that.
To intercede is in some way to die to ourselves, where we refuse the urge to self-absorption and demonstrate empathy for those who suffer and faith to pray for the better world which God shall realise. After this we have permission to bring our own needs to him: give us today our daily bread…and lead us not into temptation. These needs are more important to God than we allow ourselves to believe. There are also many times in life when our needs seem to outweigh other people’s and we feel terrible we have no energy left to think of others. God understands this. It is also the moment that other people’s willingness to forfeit their own concerns in prayer in favour of ours brings us deliverance.
In a cynical world, a referral to prayer is often the statement of a lost cause: ‘you’d better pray for a miracle, mate!’, as if the situation is hopeless. This is a reversal of the truth: prayer is the first resort of the faithful, not the last, and one of the greatest gifts of God to the human world.
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