“Science: Because you don’t figure [stuff] out by praying.”
I saw this quote (with an added expletive) on a meme recently. The implication, apart from the disjunctive association, was obvious: prayer doesn’t work.
That seems to sum up a prevalent view of prayer in our world, a view even held by Christians as well as non-Christians. Prayer doesn’t get tangible results; therefore, it doesn’t work. And if the pragmatist demands results from his prayer, the pietist (the Pharisee) demands rewards because of who he is. Sometimes, we might manage to find ourselves in one or both of these camps.
The reasoning behind either one of these beliefs isn’t so farfetched. For instance, if you work faithfully at your job, it isn’t unreasonable to expect the result of a fair paycheck. If you are the head of a company, it isn’t unreasonable to expect the reward of honor and respect from your employees. But both have wedged their way into the way we think about prayer.
Out of Context
We either think that God must give us the results we want in prayer precisely because we pray or that God must reward when we pray because we are His followers. In fact, you can find dozens of books, blogs, articles, movies, and even sermons devoted to the topic of how to achieve results from prayer. Many of these will say that to truly achieve results in prayer, you have to pray in a special way, with a special feeling, or even in a special room.1 Some will even claim that because you pray, God will give you the reward of heaven, as if your prayer itself is the thing that will save you.
Some will even dismiss the Lord’s Prayer as something we should avoid praying because, they claim, God only listens to prayers from the heart, and a prayer already written down cannot be prayed from the heart. Even we Lutherans, who do pray the Lord’s Prayer at least once a week, if not every day, can view this prayer as a way to achieve results for ourselves or tell God how He should reward us. We want to bring God’s kingdom here (a slice of heaven on earth would be nice, wouldn’t it?), we want to gain our daily bread (or more of it), we want our sins to be for-given (and maybe for God to forget about the other half of this petition), and we want God to keep us away from temptation and trouble (and if I get into temptation, well, God allowed me to get into it in the first place).
All of these views turn prayer into a means to an end, a petition of nothing more than gimme or God, give me what I want. God’s love or even His very existence are then contingent on whether or not God follows through. If our prayer doesn’t seem to produce results or rewards, that must either mean we didn’t pray correctly or God simply didn’t listen, maybe because He isn’t actually real.
This is why Prayer is the third part of the Catechism and why it follows both the Ten Commandments, which tell us we are unable to please or come to God on our own, and the Creed, which tells us that God has actually come to us. Prayer isn’t a means to an end through which God will give us stuff. Rather, it’s the response of faith worked through the Gospel because of everything God has already given us. Luther actually said that God
has given us prayer “so that we may see how heartily He pities us in our distress, and we may never doubt that such prayer is pleasing to Him and shall certainly be answered” (LC, III, 22).
While we may and do ask for things for ourselves and on behalf of others, Christian prayer doesn’t focus on ourselves and others, but rather on Christ. Prayer is an act of worship which proclaims and points to Christ, His grace, His forgiveness, and His promises.
Luther continued speaking specifically about the Lord’s Prayer. He said the Lord’s Prayer is “a great advantage indeed above all other prayers that we might compose ourselves. For in our own prayers the conscience would ever be in doubt and say, ‘I have prayed, but who knows if it pleases Him or if I have hit upon the right proportions and form?’ Therefore, there is no nobler prayer to be found upon earth than the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it daily because it has this excellent testimony, that God loves to hear it” (LC, III, 23).
Each petition in the Lord’s Prayer directs us to where our thoughts should be. It guides us to see what our most important needs are, and then, because we even fail at putting these needs first, the Lord’s Prayer calls upon our heavenly Father to have mercy on us for Jesus’ sake. And God does have mercy because Jesus, who taught us to pray this prayer, fulfilled it Himself.
Jesus hallowed God’s name perfectly. He won the victory for us on the cross and brings His spiritual kingdom to us. He submitted His own desires to the Father’s will when He gave up His life on the cross. Jesus, who is the Bread of Life, gives of Himself freely for our daily needs. Jesus forgave the sins of those who crucified Him and weren’t even sorry for their sins; He forgave the sins of the whole world; He forgave our sins. Jesus never fell into temptation even though He was tempted in every point just as we are. Finally, Jesus delivered us from the Devil and all evil when He took this evil upon Himself on the cross. And then, as proof that all these things were true, that we now have eternal life, and that we have access to pray to God as our heavenly Father, Jesus rose from the dead. God the Father declared “Amen,” “it is true.”
The Lord’s Prayer directs us to Christ who has accomplished everything for us.
Prayer works because of Jesus.
To that we say, “Amen, it is true, Christ is risen, indeed.”
Reverend Jeff Hendrix
Calvary Lutheran Church
Grace Lutheran Church
1See the movie “War Room” (2015) for just one example of this type of thinking.