I was listening to an audio book recently. The book was actually about “listening”—why listening is so important in all of life and how we can improve our listening. The topic is of interest to me because I feel like listening is something I could really grow in.
At one point, the author was talking about how often when we listen effectively, people who may have come to us with a “problem” end up solving the problem themselves, simply because our listening enables them to process better. And then she said something like this: “It’s sort of like prayer. Most people don’t experience God doing anything in response to our prayers, but when we do pray, it often helps us feel better. We are able to process more effectively.”
Now I realize she wasn’t intending to make a theological statement, but she did—one that I found particularly disturbing. Is prayer simply a means of processing our own stuff—in other words, does it not matter whether or not God is paying attention on the other side?
How radically differently prayer is portrayed in Scripture. Jesus tells us “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogue and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6
Jesus is challenging those who “use” prayer in a way in which God is not necessary—whether He is there or not doesn’t matter. They get their own reward. But He points out that they are missing something huge, something that is at the heart of authentic prayer: an intimate relationship with God. In that day, it would have been scandalous for Jesus to refer to God as “Father”. No rabbi would have done that. It would have been perceived as being irreverent.
But Jesus wanted us to know the essence of prayer—being alone with your Heavenly Father. This Heavenly Father is not a spiritual statue, who is there for the purpose of allowing us to process things more deeply. Rather He is a God who desires to be intimately involved in our heart and life. He hears us when we pray. He responds to our prayers. And He speaks to us. What an incredible relational experience He invites us into—and it begins by us simply getting alone with him, closing the door and praying to our Father who is unseen.