RELIGION COLUMN: Prayer in the right language

Published 12:57 pm Tuesday, March 25, 2014

By Jake McCall

In my hometown of Monroeville, Ala., there was a great little restaurant called Old Mexico. It was the only Mexican restaurant in town, and when I was in high school, my friends and I loved going there. One of my friends, who was taking Spanish at the time, wanted to try out Spanish on the waiter. This attempt to order an entrée in the Spanish language resulted in our waiter looking very confused, and as my friend continued to try, it became clear that no one had any idea what was being said. A couple of times our patient waiter, hoping to gain some clarity, tried asking a question back in Spanish, which my friend did not understand. Finally our waiter said, with clear and precise English, “Could you just order in English?” And that solved the problem.

In Matthew 6, just before giving us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gets to the heart of prayer when he says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). By referring to the Gentiles and their practice of using many words and empty phrases, Christ is specifically referencing a pagan practice of praying to the pagan gods of the Gentiles or the Greeks. As the Greeks would address Aphrodite or Appolo or Zeus, they would just start lofting up all of these phrases and words in hopes of connecting to a god of some sort. And this practice, which is deserving of a rebuke, is the type of “praying” that you and I are doing when we start lofting some words up there hoping something may stick, just in case God is up there listening.

Have you ever heard a prayer in “God language?” Maybe you use it: “O Lord, thou art the most imminent and transcendent One who by thy fathering, immutable hand, of which is invisible but wondrous,” etc, etc. Now perhaps I overdid that just a bit to make a point, but I think it is a valid one because Jesus reminds us that there is no benefit in lofting up empty phrases with many words toward heaven. I do agree that as we meet with God in prayer, there should be a reverence that surpasses our time with others. And yet, if we are not praying in the language of our heart—which is most likely not Old English—then God may be cringing to some degree. Consider the story about my friend trying to communicate in Spanish. As we try to pray in “God language,” he very well may desire that we stop and pray in the right language—the language of our hearts.

I know this is a real issue with some of us, so here is how we are helped: Matthew 6:8 tells us that the first step in overcoming this is to believe that the Father knows what you need before you ask him. This is not to say that you shouldn’t pray because God already knows your needs. This tells us to pray with confidence, sincerity and urgency because God can hear you. He can understand your heart and he has all-knowing power. When we can pray in the language of our heart, we can also hear from the heart of God. And as you engage with the Lord, you will no longer feel like you have to spend prayer time just lofting up phrases because you don’t know what to say. Jesus addresses this because he, as God the Son, values union with the Father and longs for us to know and experience that union. This is why he expresses what prayer accomplishes when he teaches us how to pray by giving us the Lord’s Prayer.

Next week’s column will look further into this use of the Lord’s Prayer.

—Jake McCall is a religion columnist for The Clanton Advertiser. He is the pastor at Grace Fellowship Presbyterian Church. His column appears each Thursday.