Just because our prayers begin with “Our Father” and end with “in Jesus’s name” doesn’t mean all the words in the middle flow easily. Sometimes, even those awake to the wonder of prayer face discouraging difficulties: internal struggle, outward resistance, perhaps even a sense of divine silence. And while such difficulties can reflect something wrong within — a heart overgrown with worldly cares (Luke 8:14) or hiding unconfessed sin (Psalm 66:18) — Jesus’s teaching on prayer is striking for its realism.
Most mornings, it seems, I forget how to pray. Or I at least seem to forget what prayer really is — what’s really happening in these quiet moments before an open Bible and a hearing God. I may stumble through my thanksgivings and petitions, but apart from some daily remembering, my prayers, like hapless pilgrims in a Bunyan allegory, tend to fall into the slough of distraction, or get locked in the castle of discouragement, or fall asleep on the enchanted ground.
In his book on prayer, Tim Keller writes of the need to “take ourselves in hand and wake ourselves up to the magnitude of what is going to happen” as we pray (Prayer, 127). Before unthinkingly mumbling “Heavenly Father” or “Lord,” pause, take your soul in hand, and remember the wonder of prayer.
And one of the best ways we can remember is by listening to what Jesus himself says about prayer. So much of our Lord’s teaching on prayer is designed to help us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). In the Gospels, Jesus comes to pray-ers like us — discouraged, distracted, willing in spirit but weak in flesh — and he gives us a heart to pray. Of the many reminders we could mention, consider four representative lessons.
1. We come to a Father.
Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew 6:9)
Michael Reeves notes how prone we can be to treat prayer “as an abstract activity, a ‘thing to do,’” rather than remembering “the one to whom [we’re] praying” (Enjoy Your Prayer Life, 30). Prayer easily becomes impersonal: “to pray” is to run down a list of names, sit or kneel in such and such place for so long, drive in the old familiar ruts of phrases said ten thousand times. But most fundamentally, prayer is not an abstract activity or a habit or even a spiritual discipline; prayer is a personal response to a personal God — a God whom Jesus told us to call Father.
The wonder of this word often escapes us; it would not have escaped the disciples. They had never called God Father before, except in the broadest sense (Exodus 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1). To address God as “our Father in heaven,” to mimic Jesus’s own affectionate “Abba” — this was astoundingly, wonderfully new. When those who trust in Jesus come to pray, we come to a Father.
And what a Father he is. He knows our inmost thought and need, yet still he loves to hear us unburden our souls before him (Matthew 6:8, 32). His ear always open, his eye always upon us, he turns our ordinary rooms and closets into sanctuaries of communion (Matthew 6:6). He’s the archetype and fountain of all fatherly generosity, distributing good gifts with both hands (Matthew 7:9–11).
But perhaps the most heart-awakening words Jesus spoke about the Father are those in John 16:27: “The Father himself loves you.” “Here is something to say to ourselves every day,” Sinclair Ferguson writes of these five words. “They are simple words, but life-changing, peace-giving, poise-creating” — and, we might add, prayer-inspiring (Lessons from the Upper Room, 174).
2. Jesus perfects our prayers.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. (John 16:23)
Throughout his ministry, Jesus showed supreme patience with requests that others would have silenced. When the crowds hushed the blind and shouting Bartimaeus, Jesus called him over (Mark 10:47–49).