How to Pray (Part 1): “Our Father”

This is the first of a five-part series on the Lord’s Prayer. Come back throughout the week for the rest!

We’ve got issues when it comes to prayer.

For one, we say things that don’t make sense. We repeat phrases and God’s name and the word “just” over and over: “Father God, I just want to thank you, Father God, I just want to ask, Father God, that you just …” It’s just enough to drive you crazy.

And then there’s what I’ve heard called the “prayer-lecturer.” They kind of pray but really do more lecturing and gossiping: “Lord, I beseech you to be with Rachel and her new boyfriend as they deal with purity, as you have called us to purity, and, Lord, sometimes I just see lust in their eyes.”

Comedian John Crist says, “I’m still not sure what we’re doing when we pray for our food: ‘Lord, bless this food and the hands that prepared it.’ Why just the hands? Why not the whole body? But, see, that’s a question you are not allowed to ask. Next time you pray over a meal, try asking God to bless the feet or the kidneys of the people that prepared it. See where that gets you.”

Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder how we should pray. There is a story in the New Testament where Jesus not only explains to the disciples how to pray but also gives a prayer to model theirs after. The Lord’s Prayer should shape the way we pray today, too.

Every religion teaches its adherents to pray. But Christian prayer is fundamentally different. In Matthew’s recording of this story, he tells us that before Jesus gives his disciples instructions on the way to pray, he warns his disciples how not to pray:

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:7–8 ESV

What did Jesus have against long prayers? It’s not necessarily that he got bored when people took too long praying, but that these pray-ers thought they’d be heard for their “many words.” They thought that because they pray a certain number of times or say certain phrases or get themselves into some spiritual state, God would hear them.

Almost every religion teaches some version of this: If you’ll repeat enough Hail Marys, verses from the Koran, or chants from the Bhagavad Gita, or if you’ll yell loud enough at God saying, “Yes Lord; Yes, Lord” enough times, then he will hear you. The techniques vary, but the principle is the same: Learn the technique well enough and you can put God on the hook.

You, by contrast, Jesus says, pray to a loving Father, a Father you don’t have to persuade to care, a Father who knows what you need before you ask it, who only thinks about his children with good.

A family at our church adopted a number of children from a country in South Asia. One of them was adopted when he was a little older, so many of his patterns of behavior have been slow to change. He often interacts with his new parents by manipulating them, not trusting that they have his best interest at heart. The mother told me, “At first I got frustrated, but then I realized what was happening, and it broke my heart. He’s part of a beloved family now, but at times he still acts like an orphan.”

We have been adopted into God’s family. We shouldn’t approach God as if we have to make ourselves worthy. Yet many times we still act like orphans.

Adoption is a one-time decision of the parent that does not fluctuate with the behavior of the child. We have been made children through the finished work of Christ, and there’s nothing we need to do to entice God to hear us.

Prayer begins by embracing the fatherhood of God. That’s where Jesus starts his model prayer for the disciples: “Our Father in heaven …” (Matthew 6:9b)

Paul Miller says how we approach God in prayer is where we demonstrate whether or not we really understand the gospel:

When we slow down to pray, we are immediately confronted with how unspiritual we are. … In contrast, children never get frozen by their selfishness. They come just as they are, totally self-absorbed. Jesus tells us to become like a little child when we pray. … How do little children ask? They just say what is on their minds. They have no awareness of what is appropriate or inappropriate. This isn’t just a random observation about how parents respond to little children. This is the gospel.

Because of the gospel, God accepts us with all of our mess. We can approach him without pretense and talk to him as we would an earthly father, because we are in relationship with him.

Many people have a hard time with this because they had such a strained relationship with their earthly dad, who was quick to anger, inattentive, or absent altogether.

If that’s you, I would plead with you: Don’t think of your Heavenly Father like your earthly one. He’s different. Eternally different.

Maybe your earthly dad looked at you as a nuisance. But your Heavenly Father can’t stop thinking about you, dances over you with singing, and knows when a single hair falls from your head.

Your earthly father may have been self-absorbed, but your Heavenly Father is so into you that he chose to sacrifice what was dearest to him—his Son—so that you would be a part of his family.

Your earthly father may have abused you. The wounds of that betrayal, as you know, are deep, and not easily healed. But part of the road to healing is seeing that your Heavenly Father is nothing like this. Far from using his power to intimidate or harm you, he is always using his power to draw you closer to paradise—that is, closer to him.

Let go of your posturing and obsessing over how unspiritual you are or how you want to say the right words. Go before the throne of God boldly and say, “Dad, I have a need,” and just tell him what’s on your heart.