And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
MATTHEW 6:5-13 (ESV)
I spoke recently with someone leading a local ministry who was reeling over a confession given by a man attending his Bible study. “He told us he had never prayed out loud in front of his family.” Eyes still widened by the shock, he continued, “Not once. Not over a meal. Not at church. Never. Imagine that!”
Ask anyone on the street what Christians do, and prayer is likely one of the activities you’ll find most associated with the Church. We sing songs, we read the Bible, we pray. It’s an identifying practice of God’s worshiping people. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s not something we do as often or as fervently as we’d like to admit. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 45% of adults who say they pray do so once a week – or less. We readily confess the incredible belief that there is a real God with a real voice who really speaks to us, and yet we seem to have great difficulty bothering to speak back to Him.
What keeps us from prayer? I believe it’s silence. Ours is a culture that despises silence. Look through any music streaming service for tracks of white noise and you’ll be struck by how many millions of listens each has acquired. We don’t know how to be quiet and still because we have no reason to be. Every bit of space can be filled with sound. And when something isn’t speaking to us, we’re speaking to something. Each of us has a mouthpiece in the dozens of social media platforms waiting for us to join. We are a world of voices speaking over one another trying to be heard. In that kind of environment, there’s nowhere to go but louder.
Jesus saw this coming. Even in a time before artificial noise addiction, he knew how quickly the soul longs to be filled, how scared it is to know emptiness. The false prayer of his day was white noise. It was distraction, numbing, a burst of sound sent out across the surface to drown out the shouts beneath. The Gentilic prayers were about conjuring God’s activity, as if by magic, with the power of human performance. They revealed the worst kind of pride, one that would domesticate the power of God and tame His imagination.
The kind of prayer Jesus lays out was and still is countercultural. It’s prayer that greets silence with trust, the kind that approaches the presence of God with a heart unburdened and open. Jesus is telling us there is no need to force the hand of God. We couldn’t if we tried! Instead we’re told the Father knows our need before we even approach. And better yet, He still wants us to bring our needs to Him! This is because ours is a God of relationship. What He desires for us is faith that He’s listening. And faith like that can only come from communion.
In his grace, Jesus teaches us how to pray, and in the process he models the chief tenet of prayer: Christian prayer, like all worship, is a conversation that God starts. At the most fundamental of levels, prayer is simply resting in that. “Our Father.” As Alexander Schmemann says in his book on the Lord’s Prayer, before we ever get to our needs, we acknowledge our sonship and our family. We have a Father. God says so much to us before we ever say a word.
God remind me today that You are speaking, always, and that I don’t have to conjure your presence with false piety or pretty words. Remind me, clearly and often, that in the silence you are inviting me to listen and to receive. Renew in me a desperation to hear Your voice, knowing that in relationship with You I am changed and You are glorified. AMEN.
Take time today to observe how often you encounter silence. Pay attention to your reaction to it. Do you embrace it? Do you fill it? And if you do, whose voice fills it? Consider how God might speak to You in these moments you are tempted to dismiss.