If the Father were to appear visibly among us, how would we address Him? What language would we use? Would we be too afraid to speak? Would we feel constrained to mention only the most lofty themes, or would we be free to talk candidly about what He already knows is in our hearts? Would it be easier to discuss such matters with the Son? Would it be more appropriate to speak or listen? How does one listen to the voice of God?
As you can see, the purpose of this chapter is to describe what prayer is all about. As with all the topics in our conversations, the way we pray depends upon the kind of person we believe our God to be. Surely no one knew better how to talk to God than the Son of God Himself, the one we call Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, you recall, He gave some very clear advice as to how to pray:
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers . . . for everyone to see them. . . . But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place. . . . In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. . . . Your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him. This is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, thy name be hallowed; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us. And do not bring us to the test, but save us from the evil one” (Matt 6:9-15, NEB).
If God already knows our needs before we ask Him, why should we take time to pray at all? That question assumes, of course, that the primary purpose of prayer is to lodge our requests with the Lord. But there are others who prefer to understand prayer as conversation with God as with a friend. It’s in the biblical record that the Son of God Himself engaged in many such conversations with His Father. We are told that “He went up into the hills by himself to pray” (Matt 14:23, RSV), often after a very busy day. “All night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12, RSV).
Have you ever prayed all night? How could Jesus pray to His Father all night long without a certain amount of repetition? Do you think Jesus babbled on like the heathen, supposing that the more He said the more likely His Father was to hear Him? That would be inconceivable, wouldn’t it? Or were His conversations with His Father so real that the night hours simply slipped away? Haven’t you had the experience of visiting with a friend of whom you are especially fond, and the hours just flew away? You see, everything depends on whether or not God is our friend. The way we pray reveals to others, and to ourselves, the kind of person we believe and understand our God to be.