Sunday, 25 June 2006

draw near to God

Today Pastor Hany was talking about prayer. We read Matthew 6:5-8.
5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

I have found prayer to be a difficult topic for years. My dad gave me some good advice about prayer once: when you don't feel in the mood to pray, you need to pray until you are. Hard teaching! Hany said the same thing today. First he said that we are all called to pray. Jesus assumes this by saying, "When you pray...". And we should pray with the right motives. Our desire is not to be seen or to make ourselves feel less guilty or to fulfill a sense of duty. Instead prayer is for coming close to God. In Isaiah God says, "These people come near to me with their mouth, and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." (Isaiah 29:13) The point of prayer is not to bring a list to him since he already knows what you need. The point is not to heap up empty phrases (NRSV) because we think we will be heard because of our words. The purpose in the asking and the talking is that it brings us close to him.

Part of coming with the right motives is to speak honestly about the state of my heart. It's no good to come to God and say, blandly, "Dear Father, I thank you that... blah, blah." Instead we needs to say honestly how we are. "Dear God," we can say, "I'm having a hard time praying." Or we can say, "Dear Lord, I'm angry and I can't think straight." It's no use saying all the right things if we aren't saying the honest things. In this way, we bring our hearts close to him, avoiding the distance that Isaiah said was between empty prayer and God.

Jesus says that we are to go into a room and close the door. Only one room in most Jewish houses had a door that locked: the storeroom. It was also a room without a window. So Jesus is saying that we need to leave distractions as much as possible. God the Father sees what we do when we pray in secret like this. Notice that it doesn't say that he hears us, since he's really looking into our hearts to see our motives. He sees exactly what is in our heart and he knows the words on our lips. So the purpose of prayer is to open our hearts to him.

The person who prays to be seen, Jesus says, earns their reward. They get seen and gain the glory from people that they sought. But they do not gain the favour of God. If we pray to fulfill our sense of duty, we get the reward we seek and no longer feel guilty. But if we want to honour God and please him, we must approach prayer with a desire to come closer to God and open our hearts honestly.

1 comment:

P T Forsyth said...

Hey Sarah, What your Dad said reminded me of something I wrote once:

To learn to pray with freedom, force yourself to pray. Do not say, "I cannot pray, I am not in the spirit." Pray till you are in the spirit. Sometimes, again, you say, "I will not go to church. I do not feel that way." Do it as a duty, and it may open out as a blessing. Omit it, and you may miss the one thing that would have made an eternal difference. Compel yourself to meet your God as you would meet your promises, your obligations, your fellow men.

So if you are averse to pray, pray the more. Do not call it lip-service. That is not the lip-service God disowns. It is His Spirit acting in your self-coercive will, only not yet in your heart. What is unwelcome to God is lip-service which is untroubled at not being more. As appetite comes with eating, so prayer with praying.