Eugene Peterson writes in Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (pp51-52):
“Prayer can be learned only in the vocabulary and grammar of personal relationship: Father! Friend! It can never be a matter of getting the right words in the right order. It can never be a matter of good behavior or proper disposition or skillful manipulation. It can never be a matter of acquiring some information about God or getting in touch with myself. It is a relationship, exclusively and unendingly personal. And so it is imperative that we watch our language, for the personal is constantly and increasingly in danger of suppression by the arrogant and blasphemous claims of technology, the apotheosis of the impersonal.”
The pressure to pray more and pray better weighs heavy on the Christian soul. We all want to pray more and pray better. By that we mean praying more words and better words. Peterson, however, suggests it’s precisely when we try to pray more and pray better that we actually hinder praying at all. We fear getting prayer wrong or boast in getting it right that we aren’t even praying at all, even (or especially) when pious words flow from our mouth in Shakespearean rhythms. Either we pray or we don’t. And what I often consider prayer isn’t.
We’ve assumed certain rules in prayer that do more to hinder prayer than help it. Rather than “lift up our soul” (Ps 25.1) we lift up our words. So the church’s opening prayer will sound much like last week’s, and last decade’s. Of course, the offertory prayer must ask God to “bless the gift and the giver.” The pre-meal prayer must include “nourishment of our bodies” as surely as prayers for the sick must address “the Great Physician.”
We assume prayer is “a matter of getting the right words in the right order.” It’s all so rote. So rehearsed. So impersonal. So prayerless. The harder we try to make prayer sound “prayerful” the less prayerful we become.
Or, we attach prayer to our behavior or disposition. We can only pray when we feel really holy or have spiritual capital built up against which to draw. We pray as if God were some cosmic banker that charges overdrafts on our heavenly account so we’d better have enough clout to collateralize our requests.
Or, we use prayer as “skillful manipulation.” Jesus would call this hypocrisy and I’ve done my fair share of it. My heart feels one way (and necessarily cries out accordingly), but I say words that betray my heart. Like a child trying to say just the right thing to manipulate her father, I try to pull one over on God by saying words he wants to hear while he is seeing the words my heart is screaming. We can do that with other people but we never fool God. Yet, our God patiently listens while I lie to him because Jesus suffered the punishment due liars.
Jesus warned us against convoluted and pretentious prayer (Mt 6.5-15). We mouth right words but God knows we are not praying. It’s “meaningless repetition” and “many words” that do nothing but perform before men. God is not impressed with prayer-as-performance. His ear bends low to those who cry out, “Abba, Father. Not my will but yours be done” (Mk 14.36).
Christ’s followers pray simply, honestly, genuinely and openly both alone and together. We don’t pray as though God or men are grading our prayers. We pray because God is a Friendly Father, a Fatherly Friend, who knows our heart. And he’s not offended by it because Jesus assumed all the offense.
Prayer is not about our character but about God’s. Not about our ability or fitness but about God’s mercy. He knows what our heart cries so we do well to let those cries loose through our mouths. Jesus has liberated us to pray with the lid off. God knows, hears and is quite able to handle what he already knows about us.
Almost counterintuitively, let’s not resolve to pray more or better. Let’s resolve to pray. Jesus didn’t teach us a class on prayer. He prayed . . . and forgave.
So get around those who lose the rules and rhetoric. Pray with those who resist pretense and protocol. Pray with those who know Jesus as a faithful–and personal–High Priest. Pray with those who know the Father, not merely impressive words about him. Who habitually commune with him. Pray with those who don’t merely repeat the word of God, but reflect the word of God by forgiving.
We do not pray as God’s customer, performer or employee but as his child. His beloved child. Like Jesus.