“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray in this way: 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 do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:7-15).
Do you pray? I don’t mean when it’s your turn at the supper table, or when someone calls on you in Sunday School class. Do you pray? What do you say? Is it hard to pray?
Prayer has been addressed for so long as a formal thing that is unlike anything else we do during the day. We expect that prayers follow some kind of standard of length and prettiness; that is, we figure that the longer and lovelier the prayer, the better it is. And the better the prayer, the more chance we will have of God hearing it and answering it. Of course, this view of prayer makes it almost a magical incantation. Which is to say, you have to find the right words in order to yank God’s chain hard enough to get anything done.
Jesus, on the other hand, heads us in a different direction. Jesus tells us to pray simply and directly. One doesn’t have to heap on the words for God to hear it—God already knows what you need before you ask. Prayer is honest communication between us and the one who made us, and who watches over us.
Prayer is not a tool to manipulate God into doing what we want. Prayer is the foundation of the relationship between God and humanity. It isn’t designed to convince God to forgive us, or to take care of us. God has already promised in Christ to do that. Prayer is a way of allowing us to see our need (for a “Father who art in heaven”, for forgiveness, for bread, for aid in facing trials and temptations, etc.), of admitting that we couldn’t live without God’s grace.
And maybe that’s why Jesus tacks on the saying at the end about forgiving our brothers and sisters who have trespassed against us. Because if we can’t see God’s grace in forgiving us so that we might forgive others, then we’ll never experience our bread, our trials, or the kingdom of heaven as a gift from God. If we never get the picture that God’s forgiveness of us frees us to forgive other people (people that the world says we have a right to hold a grudge against), then we don’t have a clue about the rest of what’s involved in being a Christian. How can God forgive those who have no idea what forgiveness is, or that they even need it?
Prayer is not a mystical formula, or a flowery show of devotion. Prayer gives us a sense of the majesty of God, and to what great lengths God has gone to show us mercy. It gives us understanding about gratitude and about whom we depend upon for even the most ordinary things in life. Perhaps, most of all, prayer allows us to see that God lost in a Son in God’s desire to reconcile—even with those who have done us wrong.