“When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matt 6:7)
Over the years, whenever I’ve heard a prayer meeting of any kind being advertised, it’s usually introduced with this kind of caveat: “By the way, you don’t have to pray out loud or anything – just saying ‘Amen’ at the end of other people’s prayers is fine.”
‘You don’t have to pray out loud.’ Why do we say this?
I’m sure there are good intentions behind it. We genuinely want people to come to our prayer meetings, and we know some won’t if they’re expected to lead others in prayer. We don’t want to pressure people into praying. For new Christians, praying out loud can be intimidating. There might be good reasons for a person’s hesitancy – my kids sometimes struggle to pray because they’re aware of God’s majesty, and that’s a good thing. And yes, saying a heartfelt ‘Amen’ to someone else’s prayer is a wonderful thing.
But let’s consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 6, and the idea (one we’ve been considering over the last few days) that prayer is about a dependent child talking to a heavenly Father. “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven…’” (Matt 6:7-9)
The Lord’s Prayer is packed with rich theology and Old Testament allusions, but the prayer itself is stunning and deliberate in its simplicity – a grand total of 57 words, taught specifically to counteract the idea that prayer is about using special words or eloquent, long-winded phrases to catch God’s attention.
Here’s how Tim Chester puts it: “Think about how earthly fathers react when their children first speak. They don’t go, ‘What did you say? “Dada”? It’s not “Dada”. It’s “Father”. How can you be so ignorant? Don’t talk to me until you’ve learnt how to speak properly.’ No, in my experience, earthly fathers tend to say, ‘Did you hear that? She said, “Daddy”. She’s so amazing.’ (And all the while, I’m thinking, ‘It just sounded like a gurgle to me!’) Most fathers love it when their children talk to them. It may be garbled and inarticulate, but they’re thrilled to hear their child speak, especially when they call their name.” (You Can Pray, p. 18)
What might we be inadvertently saying – or what might we be heard to say – when we tell people, ‘You don’t need to pray out loud or anything’? I think a lot of people hear it as something like, “Listen, praying out loud takes quite a bit of experience. You might not be up to it just yet. You wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself or use the wrong words or anything. You might not be articulate enough to pray – but you can probably manage to say ‘Amen’ without messing it up.”
I’m not suggesting asking the brand new Christian to lead prayers at church on Sunday (I’ll mention a bit about why tomorrow), and I’m not saying that giving permission not to pray out loud is always bad – there are often good, kind reasons to put people at ease. But we need to be careful in the way we speak about corporate prayer. I’d like to see it put more like this: “You don’t have to pray out loud if you don’t want to – but really, if you’re a Christian, there shouldn’t be any reason why you can’t pray out loud when you’re gathered with a group of other Christians. God loves to hear from us, and we have so much to pray for. It doesn’t matter if you’re not articulate or you struggle to know what to say. That’s alright. Just pray in whatever way you’re able, and we’ll say ‘Amen’ when you’re done.”
I’ve sat through waaaay too many awkward silences at prayer meetings, and I wonder if it’s because of the way in which people turn ‘praying out loud’ into something it’s not. It shouldn’t be scary. It shouldn’t require brilliantly chosen words or careful preparation. Praying after Bible study or praying at the prayer meeting should be just like all prayer – simple, genuine faith, expressed in whatever words we can find, to a great and powerful heavenly Father. “Fear not because your prayer is stammering, your words feeble, and your language poor. Jesus can understand you.” (J.C. Ryle)
Dear heavenly Father, thank you for the things Jesus taught about prayer. Please help me to remember that you don’t hear me because of my many words, or because I use the right words, but because of Jesus. Please help me to worry less about the words I use, and more about praying to you in trust. In Jesus’ name. Amen.