Many of us feel we ought to pray more. We want to be better at prayer. We think that maybe our prayers are deficient. Jesus’ own disciples saw how much he prayed and perhaps they felt the same way we do. And so in Luke 11 we have the story of the disciples asking Jesus how to pray.
Someone once asked a simple cleaning lady what her method of prayer was. She said:
I don’t know nothing about method. I just pray like this: When I wash my clothes, I pray, ‘Lord, wash my heart clean’. When I iron my clothes, I say, ‘Lord, iron out all those troubles I can’t do nothing about’. When I sweep the floor, I say, ‘Lord, sweep all the corners of my life like I’m sweeping this floor.’
That is a really good answer. That is a wonderful attitude to prayer.
Let’s see if Jesus gave a similar answer to this question from his disciples.
First, I’d like to note something that Jesus did not say. He didn’t talk about technique. He didn’t mention posture. That is left up to us. You may have been taught in Sunday school to put your hands together and close your eyes. That is not a teaching from Jesus. That is to stop children fiddling and keep their eyes from wandering.
The normal way to pray in Jesus time was to stand up, raise your hands, and look toward heaven. Jews do that to this day. We also pray this way in the Christian church.
Another posture is found in Luke 18:10 – standing with eyes looking down and hands clasped.
This is the traditional posture of a shackled prisoner of war who is brought before the conquering king. The hands are clasped at the waist as if they were shackled in chains. The eyes are averted – in ancient times, looking directly at one’s captor was insolent and a good way to get killed on the spot. This posture is for submissive petitions or for intercessory or penitential prayer.
In Luke 22, Jesus knelt down to pray. This is the traditional posture for requesting favours from a king, and so it became the traditional posture for prayers of repentance or supplication. The Council of Nicaea in ad325 forbade kneeling on Sundays, because penitential prayer is not appropriate during a celebration of the resurrection.
A modern posture for prayer is sitting.
The Roman Catholic Church invented pews during the Middle Ages, right before the Protestant Reformation. Since the Protestant Reformation was essentially a Christian education movement with very long sermons, the Protestants kept the pews – even though they rejected just about everything else they regarded as a ‘Roman invention’. As a result, sitting has become the normal posture for prayer for many Western congregations.
And finally you may pray while lying face down. It became the traditional posture for desperate, penitential or intercessory prayer and is still used in Eastern churches, which have plenty of room because they don’t have pews.
Posture doesn’t matter that much. The only thing Jesus had to say about this was, don’t pray on street corners so that everyone can admire you. Attitude matters much more than posture.
The disciples constantly failed to understand Jesus. They travelled all over the place with him, and were astounded by the things he did and said.
They were forever watching him, wondering what was the secret of his wisdom and of his power. When he was eating, sleeping, teaching, travelling, they were always watching. As disciples, that was what they were supposed to do.
Luke says that Jesus was praying, and when he stopped one of the disciples spoke to him. The disciples were watching him in prayer and as they watched there must have dawned the realization in the heart of one of the disciples, who is unnamed, that somehow the amazing power of Jesus was connected with his prayer life. When he had finished praying, one of them, speaking for all the disciples, said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
The disciples obviously were already people who prayed. The request here is for a more powerful form of prayer. They saw something special in the way Jesus prayed, and in the results of his prayers. They wanted it for their own lives. Were there special words to say.
What was it that impressed them as they watched Jesus pray and convinced them that his prayer life and his amazing power and wisdom were somehow together?
They saw first of all that, with Jesus, prayer was a necessity. It was more than an occasional practice on his part, it was a lifelong habit. It was an attitude of mind and heart. It was an atmosphere in which he lived. It was the very air he breathed. Everything he did arose out of prayer. He literally prayed without ceasing. Obviously it was not always formal prayer. He did not kneel every time, though he knelt sometimes. He did not stand with bowed head in an attitude of prayer continually. If he had done, he would not have got anything done.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself.”
Our Lord and Saviour could do nothing by himself. He needed to pray. Then how about you? We like to think we can do all sorts of things, but the truth is we can do nothing at all on our own. We need to pray.
The second thing this disciple saw in Jesus was that prayer was not only necessary, but it was also completely natural. There was no struggle on his part to pray. There was no forcing himself. Prayer to Jesus was not an act of self-discipline or duty. It was never duty, it was always delight.
Now that does not mean that Jesus did not require time for prayer, nor that he did not have to arrange for prayer in his busy daily life. He had to make choices between other demanding things that threatened to consume his time. Sometimes he spent hours and whole nights in prayer. Occasionally he slipped away when the crowds were at their very largest and were most demanding upon him. Luke records in his Gospel that a great multitude came together to hear Jesus, but he withdrew himself to a desert place and prayed.
He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and experienced real communion even in the midst of deep anguish of heart. As he prayed an angel came and strengthened him, upholding him in the midst of the pressures that he faced. Tracing through the prayer life of Jesus we can see what this unnamed disciple saw. It was all so necessary to him, so easy, so natural.
Why do we struggle so, then?
Why are we suddenly so busy when the prayer meeting is brought up? Why do we piously favour prayer in general and devilishly resist it in particular? Perhaps even now the enemy is whispering two very clever things to us about prayer: Is he not saying, to some of us at least; “Of course Jesus prayed like this, but do you expect you can live like he did? Do you really think you can live on the level of the Son of God? Is it not obvious that this kind of living is far beyond you? After all, you are nothing but a simple, ordinary Christian.”
Jesus tells us by his example that we should pray in privacy, that we should pray first thing in the morning, that we should pray for God’s will above our own, that we should pray in a position of humility, that we should pray for others first, and that we should pray even for those who hate us because we were all once God-haters before we repented, confessed our sins, and put our trust in the Saviour.
Jesus taught us that not only can we pray with simple words at any time, we need to pray.
The words of the Lord’s prayer are simple, and were familiar to ordinary people. We don’t need fancy words of prayer, we need to develop a deep relationship with our father in heaven.