Paul says to pray without ceasing. Luther writes that prayer chases away the devil, who cannot abide where God’s name is called upon. Sounds great. Who would have a problem with prayer? Pretty much everyone who’s ever actually tried it. The problem is the very needs that drive you to pray put you face to face with the giant chasm between all the things God promised and what the world actually looks like.
Who could have a problem with prayer? Bitter ex-Christians who think it’s a joke. But also heartbroken Christians who tried it and failed. “God, let me be better. Let me be healed. Let me quit this stupid awful vice. What’s wrong with me?” Christians burdened by the weight of having to pretend to be happy in the worst moments of their lives, desperate to find some positive spin. “God, I just want to thank you for this beautiful sunshine while I bury my love. You did really great today. I’m so happy with this horrible suffering and loss. Let this fake smile that nobody believes shine as a light to others about how great thou art. Amen.” Sometimes the devil loves it when you pray.
Even the worst prayers to God drive the devil away. As long as we’re willing to do his job for him, he’s fine with that. If we pray ourselves into despair, he’s more than willing to step outside for a smoke while we do it.
That’s because you’re doing it wrong. Jesus says there’s actually a wrong way to pray. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matt 6:7)” That doesn’t mean keep it short. It means, above all else, be honest. If you actually believe God is all knowing, are you really fooling Him by pretending to be happy when you’re furious with Him for letting you down? He’s God. He already knows. The only one you’re lying to is yourself. Stop. Those are empty words. Just tell Him what you need.
The reason we hate doing that is because those prayers sound angry, ungrateful, and full of doubt. They make us look like sinners. Deep down we’re afraid that God won’t listen to prayers like that. At least, not unless we sweeten the pot. The devil loves it when we try to bribe God. “God, I promise, I’ll do anything. I’ll quit this sin. I’ll give you money, time, whatever you want from me. Just listen. Not for the sake of Your love, Your Son, or Your promises to me, but because of what I can do.” The problem with the bribe isn’t just that we usually can’t actually hold up our end of the deal. The reason the devil loves it when we bribe God is that it drives us farther and farther from Christ, who already paid for our access to God in blood. We don’t need the bribe if the price was already paid. Prayer apart from a Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead is always going to be like dealing with a shady used car salesman. It becomes the worst kind of transaction where you come away feeling dirty and pretty sure you just got the short end of the deal.
And if you can’t really trust God to give you what He’s promised, then you can’ trust the ways He’s promised to work either. The devil’s favorite prayers are only willing to accept a God who works apart from His normal means. “God, I want to be loved, but not by the people you’ve given me. I want stuff, but it has to feel special so it can’t come from something as boring as a paycheck from a job you’ve given me. I want to feel better about myself, but I don’t want that from your Word and Sacraments you’ve given me.” Those prayers are doomed to fail because God never promised to work that way. If your prayers are going to lie, bribe, or demand an answer outside of how God works, know the devil says amen with you.
Jesus says to pray differently. “Our Father who art in heaven…” It doesn’t matter how many words are in your prayer. It doesn’t matter if it’s from heart. It doesn’t matter what you bring to the table. It matters who your God is. God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.
Make sure God is your Father. If He is, that’s enough. That happened in baptism. Are you baptized? It’s going to be OK. You’re God’s family. You’re His child now. God takes care of His kids. That’s the hope. In Baptism, you are united with Christ in His death and in His resurrection. Pray from your baptism. See that God actually wants to give you more than just nice stuff until you die. Pray as the Father’s child, united with the crucified and risen Son. “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
Then we can finally be honest about what we see here. We can speak to what we need here. We don’t have to lie about what we feel here. We can sound brash and angry. Your God prayed that way for you. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That wasn’t made with a polite, forced smile. Those words weren’t empty. They were full of fear and pain and anger. That was the real sinner’s prayer. Jesus prayed it for you even as He bore your sin. This cross is where sinners are made righteous. It sanctifies their prayers, too. The cross is where every awful sounding prayer is cleansed by the blood paid for you, and tied to that perfect prayer where God would save you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus prayed for you on the cross, then he cried “it is finished.” and died for you. Three days later He rose again.
Godly prayer looks like death, but it gives way to life. Pray from here, and know that God drags us from heartbreak, anger, despair, and even death to resurrection. Not someday. Every single day. That’s what your baptism is. Daily we die with Christ. Daily, He raises us up. Daily we are tied to His cross. Daily, His resurrection. Every day, heap every bit of anger, fear, doubt, and sin upon Him. Every day He dies for it, rises from the dead, brings you with Him, and promises that it’s going to be ok. Pray from here.
And then find comfort. Pray without ceasing isn’t an obligation to put on a happy face. It’s a promise. Whenever you need Him, God is here. He has already worked. He has given you salvation. You are tied to it in your baptism. He will bring you with His Son through death and into life. The rest? The right now? The stuff of this world? Be honest. But know that You are God’s child, who the Father has promised to care for. Look to the means by which He does it. He saved you by means of a cross. He delivered you by means of your baptism. Even now, He’ll care for you by the means He works here. Then, see that this world isn’t everything. It doesn’t need to be. God has something bigger in mind for you. It’s going to be OK. You have a Father who art in heaven.