In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus offers some advice about praying. He says,
‘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.’ (Matthew 6:7-8)
On its face, Jesus’ instruction seems to defeat the whole notion of prayer to begin with. For if God knows what we need before we ask, then why bother to pray? It’s seems awfully inefficient to spend time telling someone what you want if that someone already knows what you want.
But the seeming strangeness of Jesus’ advice does not lie in his words, but rather in our perspective on them. So many of us approach the whole idea of prayer with the understanding that it is primarily about asking for things. But what if prayer is not about asking? This, indeed, is exactly what Jesus is trying to say, I think. He is trying to show us that prayer isn’t about asking, because God knows already what we need and, indeed, what we would be asking for.
I think Jesus is deliberately attempting to short-circuit our assumptions about prayer — and, therefore, our assumptions about God — by trying to help us understand that prayer is not primarily about submitting our requests in the hope that they might be fulfilled. He is, I think, trying to show us that prayer is about spending time in relationship.
Earlier in this same chapter of Matthew, Jesus instructs his listeners to go into a place by themselves to pray, rather than to do so in public. “Go into your room and shut the door”, he says. And, in the houses of Jesus’ time and place, there would have been only one room in which it was possible to be with the door shut and not be seen: the pantry, a windowless room that was at the center of ancient houses in the Middle East. Jesus wants his listeners to seek this place apart, where they will not be seen by others, so that they can practice being in the presence of God in a way that is open and authentic. The theologian James Alison suggests that Jesus knows well that when we are praying in the presence of others, we are tempted to pray in the way others expect us to pray. We are tempted to pray according to their definition of what constitutes acceptable prayer. Or, we are tempted to pray in a way that will impress others or cause them to think well of us. In other words, our prayer can become all about the others around us and our relationships with them.
But if we go off by ourselves, where we are not seen or heard, then we are less tempted to pray in the way that others might expect of us. In that private space, we can be honest with God about who we are: the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. And we can begin to build a relationship with God that is truly ours, a relationship in which we are truly able to be ourselves. And, over time, that relationship can change us. It can transform our sense of ourselves, and our sense of what we want out of life. To use Alisons’s terms, our pattern of desire can begin to be changed into God’s pattern of desire.
So Jesus tells us not to enter into prayer with our laundry list of requests — with the heaping up of empty phrases, to use Matthew’s language. Rather, he wants us to enter into an open and honest relationship in which we can be changed through our experience of the love of God. Of course, this honesty includes all the desires we carry with us — including the desires that others would deem “inappropriate”. But we share these desires with God not because we think God will fulfill them for us. We share them because they are part of who we are, and until we can begin to fully come to terms with who we are, we cannot begin to change.
Of course, doing this requires that we trust the God in whose presence we place ourselves. If we think that God is likely to judge us, or to punish us for our sins, then it will be almost impossible for us to be honest and open in the presence of someone whom, we suspect, might be out to get us. We need to understand that God is for us, that God is not shocked by us, but rather delights in us. Rather than condemning us for the parts of ourselves that we deem ugly or bad, God seeks to love us into integrating all of who we are into a new whole, a new person who is capable of having a “larger soul” than we normally think possible.
And this is what God is trying to get us to understand in Jesus: that God is utterly for us, that God wants only what is good for us, and that through an open and honest relationship with God, we can begin to learn to desire what is good for us — not because God has decreed it, but because we have been loved into wanting what God wants.