The Second Woe (continued): Prayer

When I was a boy, we had an Elder in church who made very long prayers. When we saw him up on the platform we would groan. We were more concerned to time him than to listen to what he actually prayed. Most of his prayers were about 12 minutes long but could run to 20 minutes—a real form of torture in the days before padded kneeling benches.

He was not the only one to deliver long prayers. There seemed to be a general belief that quantity was quality, that sinners said short prayers and saints said long prayers.

Perhaps Jesus also suffered from the absence of kneeling benches, because in the Second Woe He placed long prayers right behind devouring widow’s houses as habits to be avoided:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (Matthew 23:14)

Of course it’s not simply a matter of prayer length. Jesus was contrasting the scribes’ and Pharisees’ (hypocritical) piety against their evil predatory financial practices.

Prayer is a vital part of life. A Pew study in 2015 found that 70% of Americans pray on a regular basis. Protestants pray more than Catholics. Jehovah’s Witnesses pray most of all. Women pray more than men. People aged 30-49 prayed more than other age cohorts (perhaps reflecting that, at that age, many are parents of teenagers!). Third-generation immigrants pray more than first-generation immigrants, who themselves pray more than second generation immigrants. Poor people pray more than rich people. People with high school or lower education pray more than people with college degrees. Married people pray more than singles (I won’t go there…!). Democrats pray more than Republicans.

None of these findings say anything about the quality of prayer. The study did not even define “prayer” for the survey respondents.

Jesus was a praying person, and He had quite a lot to say about prayer. In the first part of the Sermon on the Mount He identified prayer as one of three universal aspects of religion (the other two being the giving of alms and fasting). Note that the language in this passage is essentially the same language used in the Woes passage:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
“Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is 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 lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:1-15)

Why do we pray? What is the purpose of prayer? We are told to…

… pray without ceasing… (1 Thessalonians 5:13)

If God knows what we need before we ask (as Jesus says He does, in the passage above) then do we even need to pray? Is asking for things from God through prayer unnecessary and even inappropriate? For most of us, I suspect, asking for something is the main reason why we pray. We are weak, depleted, afraid, uncertain, empty, and need a higher power to help us, to enable us, to deliver us. Is that the purpose of prayer? What did Jesus mean when He told us to avoid meaningless repetitions in our prayers?

No-one wants to pray to a God who will not respond to our prayers and to our needs. But God knows what we need, so why should we pray? Paul seemed to think it doesn’t matter, since we don’t know how to pray anyway:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)

Neither Paul nor Jesus was suggesting that we should not pray. But what should the expectation be for our prayers? Should God benefit from our prayers? How do we know if a prayer has been answered? What, in our surrounding world, is the result of answered prayer versus simply the result of natural causes and consequences?

Jesus returned to the subject of prayer in closing the Sermon on the Mount, and said some very provocative things:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:7-12)

How can it be that we will receive anything we ask for and have every door opened for us? That is surely not the common experience. Yet people take the passage at its face value. However, Paul brought a fresh perspective to it:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-9)

This suggests that inner peace—the peace of God—is God’s answer to our prayers. Should we expect something different? Something measurable? Something specific? We believe that if our prayer for something specific is not answered, it is only because we don’t have enough faith, we are unwilling to sacrifice enough, we are not praying long and hard enough.

Donald: We are admonished to be as little children in our journey with Christ. What does one tell one’s own children about prayer? That it is just talking with Jesus? We tend to chuckle when a child prays a childish prayer, and tend to be surprised when one prays a “meaningful” prayer. What do we teach our children about the content of prayer?

Jay: We seem to think that our prayers can influence the will of God, implying thereby that we know something God doesn’t and can get Him to change His mind. Scripture seems to induce an “ask” mentality in people by suggesting that they can get it if they ask hard enough. But how can one reconcile the inherent contradiction in a human faith so great that it can change the mind of God?

I would propose that the product of prayer is the acceptance of God’s will over one’s own will. How can God refuse anything that aligns with His will? To me, faith is the acknowledgment of one’s inability to understand and control God; therefore, a faithful prayer is a prayer that God’s will be done—which is how the Lord’s Prayer opens. How can God not answer that prayer—how can He refuse to let His will be done? This is the prayer that will always be answered.

Robin: We always receive an answer to prayer. Scripture has many examples. Hezekiah prayed to change God’s mind, with bad results. On the other hand, the Importunate Widow’s persistence paid off with the unjust judge, implying that powerful minds could be changed. This tells us that God will decide with the best answer even if we can’t understand it. We can’t fully understand Him, so we can’t fully understand all His answers until we see Him face-to-face.

Mikiko: The Ruler of the universe is deeply interested in you and wants you to tell Him about how you feel and about your problems. Prayer helps us to have a close friendship with Jehovah. When friends regularly talk to each other about their thoughts, concerns, and feelings, their friendship grows stronger. It’s similar with prayer to Jehovah. Through the Bible, He has shared His thoughts and feelings with you, and He tells you what He will do in the future. You can share even your deepest feelings with Him by talking to Him regularly. As you do this, your friendship with Jehovah will grow much stronger. (See James 4:8.)

“Jehovah is near to all those calling on him, to all who call on him in truth. He satisfies the desire of those who fear him; he hears their cry for help, and he rescues them.” (Psalm 145:18, 19)

Don: My concern is with the end product of prayer. As a surgeon, I see sick people every day. Illness does strange things to people. Religious people who become ill become sceptical when they don’t seem to receive answers to their prayers. They tend not to see illness as the result of natural causes. Most people who fall ill want to see some kind of meaning in it. They turn to God and prayer and religious rituals to help them overcome their illness, only to be disappointed and left in a vary dark and stark place.

The problem arises primarily out of the expectation that God will deliver us from distress if we ask Him to. If He does not, then (we think) it must be our fault because we lack piety or faith or have not followed the prescribed rituals or have committed a grievous sin in the past. We in organized religion foster and fuel the expectation with the Scriptural backing of “Ask, and it will be given to you”, so if your expectation is not met, there must be something wrong with you. We tell you to correct your ways, do something for God, confess your sins, express more faith, do more fasting and other self-deprivation, amplify your prayers (hold prayer meetings), and so on.

Nobody wants to serve a God who is either not powerful enough to get us out of trouble or does not consider it His job to get us out of trouble.

David: What does it mean to be “relieved of distress”? Does it mean to be cured of cancer? I think not. My Daoist answer (in good company with Paul, it would seem) would be that acceptance of distress brings relief and peace. Distress is just the Way things are and the Way things are is the will of God. To accept the Way things are is to accept it is to accept the will of God.

We saw it in Fay, through the emails she sent as she lay dying of brain cancer. Her emails bore testimony to the peace and even bliss (she herself used the word) that accompanied her acceptance. To a believer (like Fay) in a God of ultimate goodness, surely there can be no better outcome from prayer than the peace and even bliss that ensues from bringing one’s will into alignment with God’s. It is a beatitude.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55)

Donald: Prayer does reduce personal anxiety. Just reaching out and giving one’s will to someone else is a good thing. (What it does to one’s relationship with God is a different question, perhaps.) We probably sense that our specific prayers are probably not going to be answered. Their true value lies in reducing anxiety. This gives us an “out” if the sought-after specific request is not granted: “My prayer was answered; just not in the way I expected.”

In addition, prayer (like giving) shows commitment to the faith journey. Which reminds me: Is there a difference between public and private prayer? We are admonished not to pray in public, but Daniel prayed (with God’s approval) openly at his window.

Jay: We get stuck in the definition of the will of God. The train of thought goes something like this: God is love, a loving God will care for us, being cared for will make us happy and healthy. But the train of Scripture shows many an example of people affected by the will of God in ways that don’t seem too promising for health and happiness. The Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, for instance. It was God who parted and then closed the waters, not Moses. It was not as though Moses had to plead with God to get Him to change His mind and whack the Egyptians.

That we can get to a point where God’s will results in health and happiness as defined by the human measuring stick is faulty thinking. Humans are incapable of understanding the will of God. How can we know that any and all natural occurrences are not the will of God? Yet we define love and happiness and so on and think we can get God to use our definitions. At best, we see through the glass but darkly, so to pray for specific things is to set a trap for oneself.

Donald: But we’ve all read stories of the lone house left untouched by a hurricane while all around it were demolished, with God to thank for answering prayers to save it.

Jay: It ignores the strong likelihood that plenty of prayers were being said in the destroyed houses as well, as the hurricane approached. Maybe it was the will of God. I cannot know. But it seems more likely to be the result of our wishful thinking about prayer and the will of God. In this respect, I share the Daoist view: It is what it is. Prayer is not a crowbar to force open God’s box of blessings.

Prayer is also not just a matter for the moment, for those times when we need a favor. If we treat the prayer described in the passages we have read as the work of a lifetime, then acceptance of the will of God becomes a more obvious purpose and the outcome of ultimate peace makes sense. If prayer also brings us into a closer relationship with—a better understanding of—God, then treating it as the work of a lifetime also makes sense. In this sense, the longer we pray, the better.

We teach our children to pray because we want them to believe that there is something there; we want them to believe that God exists; that there is something with which it is good for them to develop a relationship; and that prayer is integral to the development of the relationship. There is no point trying to build a relationship with something that does not exist.

But human language is so inadequate to the task of communicating with, and understanding, God. Hence the intercession of the Holy Spirit. But we use language to negotiate a compromise with God, so that we align a bit more of our will with His… and He with ours… to try to get the specific outcomes we seek from prayer.

Robin: God walked with humans when we were created. But following sin, He did not. It was not a punishment; it was to prevent His holiness from causing our immediate death. When divinity flashed through Jesus in Gethsemane, causing men to fall down “as dead men”, they did not die. In His mercy and love, even for people who wanted to destroy Him, He did not allow His divinity to kill them. We may not understand how or why that works the way it does, but it does.

The only way that God communicates with us now is through prayer. We communicate with those we love, so if we listen, we will hear His voice. Prayer is communication. Sometimes it is simple, or desperate, or awestruck; but it is still communication. It does not have to be more complicated than that.

Jesus talked about meaningless repetition and the length of prayer. The Pharisees were too busy talking to listen. Prayer is a two-way conversation, but we tend only to push our side, and not listen to God’s. And we had to be reminded by Jesus (in the passages cited today) that since God already knows what we need, repetition is pointless and it too stops us from listening.

David: To me, prayer has two purposes:

  • To acknowledge the existence of God. Nobody prays to something they don’t believe exists, so to pray is tacitly to recognize God’s existence;
  • To accept God’s will. If we love someone, as Robin said, we will communicate.

It does not matter how bad a child may be, its mother will tend to love it and talk to it nevertheless. (Admittedly, even a mother’s love may have its limits, but that is because mothers are only human.) In the same way, a child will also tend to love an abusive father. There is a reason we will never understand why “it is what it is,” and it is when we come to terms with that, that peace (even blissful enlightenment) can descend upon us.

Robin: A big reason for communication in prayer is to alleviate fear. Starting a prayer with praise helps take our mind off our selfish concerns. Knowing that there is a God of the universe who loves us takes away fear of the unknown and the fear of being alone.

Donald: When someone says “I will pray for you” it shows that they care for you, that there is a relationship between you. But there are several kinds of prayer. There’s public prayer within church, whose content is mutually agreed upon. We say one prayer to begin Sabbath school every week, and another one to end it. They are different in content but they don’t change.

Robin: Beginning prayers are an invitation to God to be present and help us to learn.

Don: The problem is that we generally expect to get from prayer something more than “just” peace and freedom from anxiety and fear. We teach people to expect that through prayer God will lead them from a desperate state to a well state. That’s why people join a religion. If not that, what else does religion have to sell?

Donald: One of the values of having God in one’s life is recognizing one’s place in the universe. Does prayer differ among the various religions? I sense that Christian denominations all tend to pray essentially the same. So is prayer universal? A matter of acknowledging our place in the universe? It’s a little like going to church every week: One senses there is some value in just doing it.

David: What Donald says may be true of formal public prayer in some organized religions. But the informal prayer that Jesus recommended we conduct in the closet (and I think He meant “in our hearts”) is truly universal. I think every human being prays silently at some time (even very often) in life, regardless of religious affiliation. That is the prayer addressed to and answered by God in the form of the inner spirit. Jesus talked about meaningful prayer; to me, this is the only prayer that can be truly meaningful. At the end of the day, neither a lottery win nor a cure for one’s child’s cancer has any spiritual meaning. Formal prayer is not necessarily wrong, but is not necessary.

Robin: When dying of cancer, my aunt prayed and felt close to God. But she wanted to live longer so she could see her grandchildren off to a good start in life. I dreaded visiting her in case she asked me “Why is this happening to me?” but, inevitably, one day she did. I do not have a wit quick enough to respond remotely coherently to the sudden question, yet on this occasion the words came and I answered without hesitation: “All your life, you have tried to show your children how to live with faith. Now, God is using you to show your children how to die with faith.” I think the words brought her comfort, and I am sure they came not from me, but from God.

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