The comment was made off-handedly; nothing more than a good-natured ribbing from a friend. But as I stopped to consider his words, I realized they typified a common unspoken attitude. As a pastor I get asked to pray a lot, especially in public settings. So as we sat down to lunch, I wasn’t surprised when the request to bless the food was directed toward me. I bowed my head, led with a short, well-known table prayer, and finished with a hearty “Amen.” Looking slyly at me across the table, he said, “Really? That’s it? I expected more from a pastor.”
I couldn’t really blame him, though. The notion that an “ideal” prayer is full of flowery words, rhetorical flourishes, and iambic pentameter is pretty common. Only prayers of sufficient quality and quantity will pass muster in God’s throne room. So, by paying attention to aesthetics, phraseology, and dramatic pause, we can increase the likelihood that God will regard our prayers as a truly fragrant offering. Short and simple just won’t cut it. The mature believer should be able to compose prayers the way Beethoven composed symphonies, stringing together the perfect combination of petition and praise to make the angels weep. “Bravo!” we can hear God shout as he rises to his feet. “Encore! Encore! That’s the kind of prayer I delight to answer. Now, why can’t the rest of you sinners get your acts together and learn to pray like her?”
Such a posture of prayer (overstated here for effect) reveals the perennial problem of the human heart: We believe there’s something in our own efforts–however small it may be–that can earn God’s blessing. Deep down, our inner Pharisee thinks that if we insert enough prayer coins into God’s vending machine, He will eventually spit out a blessing. Sure, a little thirty-second prayer is OK, but spending hours on our knees wearing out the carpet will give us a better shot at getting what we want–right? That’s what a seasoned “blackbelt Christian” would do. In such a view, if we were to graph out how prayer works, with “minutes spent in prayer” on the x-axis and “likelihood that God will answer” on the y-axis, there should be a linear relationship; an upward trending line as we move from left to right across the page. The higher the word count, the greater the chances that God will give us what we’re asking for–right?
This may sound trite, but the ardent zeal with which we quantify our quiet times, measure the hours spent on our knees, and evaluate the quality of our own prayers and others reveal the dark side of such (admittedly good) religious pursuits: We believe our own spiritual blood, sweat, and tears are the currency that can buy God’s favor. To put it another way, we believe that his blessing is earned rather than given. Whether it’s the high word count, the literary value of the prayer, or the Herculean persistence and longsuffering on the part of the pray-er, if we exert enough spiritual force on the “God-lever,” we can get him to move how we want.
Please don’t misunderstand. Persistence is commendable. In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable “to show them [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1, emphasis mine). The story is pretty straightforward. There’s an ungodly judge and a widow living in a particular town. The widow approaches the judge again and again pleading for justice, but again and again the judge refuses. Eventually, though, she wears him down, and he caves in to her demands. The moral of the story? This is how we should pray. The unflagging zeal of the widow should characterize our prayers as well. We should not easily give up. In fact, the word that the judge uses to describe the widow’s persistent efforts to wear him down literally means “to give someone a black eye.” Our prayer should be so forceful and relentless it’s like we’re trying to give God a black eye. So, clearly, God’s not against effort.
But he is against earning.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says this: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think 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” (Matt. 6:7-8). He then goes on to provide a template for prayer, which we refer to today as The Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus knows the propensity of the human heart toward self-justification, especially when it comes to spiritual endeavors like prayer. It’s why he told this parable:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:10-14).
Jesus holds up the short, honest prayer of the tax collector as more worthy of emulating than the lengthy virtue signaling (after all, we can’t really call it a prayer) of the Pharisee. It is not the length or quality of the prayer but the humble, repentant heart of the one praying that matters to God.
Our word counts do not impress him. God is not swayed one way or the other by the quality of our grammar. And the amount of time we spend on our knees–not a moment of which is wasted, by the way–is not what ultimately motivates him to act. God’s love is not a reaction to some initiative on our part. Instead, it originates in his good, Fatherly heart toward his children. His benevolence is made possible not by our efforts but by the perfect efforts of his Son on our behalf, whose prayer from the Cross covers all of us (Luke 23:34): “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Because of Jesus, God always hears our prayers, and he always responds to them in love–regardless of the quality or quantity of the one speaking them. So may the short, pithy, unadorned prayer of the tax collector become our model in moments of greatest need. After all, if it was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for us. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.