How to Talk to God
“Chaplain, will you teach me how to pray?” I remember that question like it was yesterday, even though it must have been at least a couple of years ago. It came from a Veteran on our inpatient mental health unit. I marveled at the time how simple and yet how profound a request it was. The man was in distress and really wanted to connect to a God who loved him. And it was a grand opportunity to help him to start that relationship.
In today’s story Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In Jesus’ day, rabbis would often craft prayers for their followers to memorize. But here it seems the disciples wanted more. They had watched this relationship Jesus had with his Heavenly Father, and they wanted it, too. They wanted to learn how to talk to God like Jesus.
Jesus didn’t give them some 1-2-3 steps to a great prayer life. He didn’t give them a block of instruction, or some notes on a tablet. He simply said, “When you pray, say...” And thus we have Luke’s version of what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” It’s a little different than the one we quote every Sunday from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 6:9-13), but all the key pieces are there. Jesus gives them a model for a balanced prayer.
I think back to my own prayer life. Nobody taught me how to pray. But actually that’s not a true statement. Many taught by example. I learned to pray by watching others pray. I watched my father, who usually gave the blessing for supper, almost always with the same exact words, along the lines of, “Bless these gifts which we are about to receive for the nourishment of our bodies.”
JOKE: That reminds me of the frazzled woman who gathered all her company around the dinner table, then almost as an afterthought, said to her six-year-old daughter, “Lizzy, why don’t you say grace tonight?” Lizzy replied, “Mom, I don’t know what to say!” Her mother patiently responded, “Just say what you hear Mommy say, sweetie.” So Lizzy bowed her head and said, “Dear Lord, why the hell did I invite all these people to dinner?”
Little kids are observant! But seriously, I watched my father pray. I watched people pray in my Sunday School classes and in church services. Later in life I heard people pray in small Bible study groups and mentoring relationships. And I listened to my seminary professors’ prayers. I learned by watching and listening, much like Jesus’ disciples did.
We pray as we have seen others pray, and what better person to observe than Jesus? In his model prayer he points us to our “Father” or “Daddy,” a wonderful heavenly parent who wants to meet our needs and have a relationship with us. So Jesus says, “Approach God like a child approaching a loving parent.” Then he says, “Pray something like this, ‘Dad, we honor you on earth more than anything. Please come to rule our lives every day we have on this earth. Help us not to worry about the future; we ask for only enough bread for today. Don’t forgive our sins until we have forgiven every last one who has done us wrong. And please God, don’t test our faith too much because you know we are weak and will fail.’”
That’s the essence of the Model Prayer. It points us to a relationship with a God who should be loved and honored, to a God who cares, to a God who provides, to a God who forgives, to a God who saves.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues with a story about perseverance. In verse 5 Jesus says, “Suppose you wake up a friend late at night to borrow a little food for unexpected guests. Your friend tells you, “It’s late. Go away before you wake up the whole house!” But you keep on knocking, until finally she helps you, if not out of friendship, then out of desperation to get rid of you!
Remember, rabbis teach in extremes. Jesus is not saying God will answer your prayer just to get rid of you. Jesus is saying if a ticked off friend will come through for you, how much more will a loving God who wants what’s best for you? So when it comes to your prayer life, the point is simple: don’t give up. Keep asking. Jesus even gives a little acronym here: A-S-K, “ASK,” which stands for “Ask, seek, knock.” Keep asking God. Don’t assume heavenly silence means “no.” Until you hear otherwise, keep asking the Lord. Stay persistent. My mother-in-law prayed for my father-in-law’s salvation for 40+ years before it came to be. Don’t give up!
Sometimes people tell me, “I pray for others but never for myself.” That sounds nice, but it’s not biblical. I point them to the line in the model prayer that says, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and then to this part about asking, seeking, and knocking. God wants us to talk with him about what we need. Yes, he already knows in advance, but if God is our parent, what loving parent doesn’t want to see better communication with his or her child? We want our kids to ask, even if we already know what they need.
Jesus emphasizes that, when we pray, we need to remember that we are God’s beloved children. All this stuff about a fish vs. a snake, or an egg vs. a scorpion: it teaches us that, as an earthly parent wants to give good gifts to his or her children, our Heavenly Father wants even more to give us what is best for us, which is not always what we ask for, by the way. Sometimes God loves us too much to give us what we ask for, but he always gives us what is best.
I like how the “Word in Life Study Bible” puts it: “God delights in his children asking, but he won’t leave us trapped in our limited perception of the situation. Sooner or later he will answer our prayers, but in his perfect timing. He asks us to trust him to know what is needed and when. Our job, then, is to ask—even persistently—and to grow in the process. One of the surprising benefits of praying is how much we change. Sometimes, that in itself is the answer to our prayers!”
Isn’t that the truth! Jesus finishes up his teaching with a powerful promise. In verse 13 he says, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The Holy Spirit is the best gift of all! God knows we cannot live this Christian life on our own. We must have help. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. And so God gives his Spirit, free for the asking.
As Christians we have God’s Spirit in us all the time. And as we ask God for that Spirit to lead us, God fills us with his Spirit, so that we are able to do his will and live life victoriously. That’s what we should pray for first and foremost, as we seek to follow him. Let us pray:
To the one who knows us better than we know ourselves, we humble ourselves before you, our Creator and Sustainer, our Father who loves us so. Help us to love you more. Help us to forgive as you want us to forgive. Help us to choose you over that next temptation. And please fill us with your Spirit so we may better follow you. We pray in the name of our Savior and Teacher, Jesus Christ, amen.