Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 15 Hidden Prayer
We’re about halfway through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s "The Cost of Discipleship". Each Sunday I have been giving you my thoughts on Bonhoeffer’s book, taking it one chapter at a time. Bonhoeffer is still commenting on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teachings to his disciples about the path of discipleship, and he has arrived at the section on Prayer in Matt. Chapter 6.
5"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. 7And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.
Jesus is continuing his theme of avoiding the ostentation and show of the hypocrites. If you remember from last time, Jesus is concerned that the Disciples motives for doing good deeds be pure, and so he asks them to do good deeds in private. Good deeds done for the admiration of the crowd have all the reward that they are going to get, but good deeds done from a pure heart are loved by God and he rewards them.
The same is also true of our prayers. Jesus is again addressing our motives. Why do you pray? Have you ever found yourself praying and realized, halfway through, that you are only talking to yourself? Have you ever listened to a prayer in church and been confused as to whether it is a sermon directed at the listener or a request directed to God? Jesus tells us that any prayer whose objective is the approval of others has already found all the answer and reward that it is going to find.
So what is the solution? Jesus tells us to go into our room and shut the door. Now this seems to be an extreme solution to us. Jesus doesn’t really want me to hide the fact that I pray, does he? Is Jesus prohibiting all public prayer? I don’t think so, but I think there is a lesson and a caution for us here.
Think about this: how do you pray on your knees in the privacy of your bedroom, and how do you pray when in front of a crowd? Are they different? Does your private prayer life differ from your public prayer life? If so, why does it?
I’d like to tell you a few of the faults I find in my own prayer life by comparing my public prayer to my private prayer. First, sometimes I don’t pray at all outside of public settings. A week can go by and I have never felt the need to talk to God outside of ritualized settings: at meals, at a Bible study, at services, and so on. When this is the case in my life I usually discover that my public prayer has about as much communication with God as my private prayer does: none. I am praying because it is expected of me, I am saying words that sound like a prayer, but no communication with God is actually taking place. Jesus tells his disciples that prayer for other peoples’ benefit has already the gained all the reward it can: God is not listening.
Another problem I discover by comparing my private prayer life to my public prayer life is just the opposite: sometimes I am consumed by a problem and in all honesty I petition God. My prayers in private are full of pleadings: God what should I do? How can I solve this problem? Please help me! And then I am asked to pray at a Church service and I suddenly find it important to talk to God about the nice weather we’re having and to thank him for the blessings of democratic governance and the right to peaceful assembly. Now I realise that some problems do not need to be public knowledge. But sometimes my reluctance to petition God even in generic terms in founded in my own ego, my desire to appear as though I have it all together. I don’t really need anything from God. And again my prayers are just words said for public consumption.
So enough of the wrong way to pray! How can I pray "rightly". Jesus goes on to answer just that question:
9 In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. 13 And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. 14 "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
First let me be clear: I do not think that Jesus’ intent was that these are the words that we should say every time we pray. What I do think His intent was is that this is the way we should pray. Lets look at the way Jesus tells us to pray.
First he says to address God as "Our Father". Isn’t this signifigant? Jesus wants us to place ourselves in a corporate setting when we pray, he desires that we selfconciously identify ourselves as part of a people, part of a family. The first three requests are phrased imperatively with the verb first to express urgency: hallowed by your name, come your kingdom, done be your will on earth as in heaven... We, the citizens of the new kingdom whose expression is God will supreme and God’s name held holy, are urged to pray for precisely the arrival and realization of that kingdom. It is no accident that this request is first: the end result of history is not arrived at on a cross but will be realized in the return! Do you desire God’s kingdom?
We also have our own needs: sustenance for survival (and even more importantly spiritual sustenance and protection). There is nothing to be ashamed of in praying for our material provision (though note the humble nature of the request: Jesus says nothing of praying for our new car, bigger house, or expensive toys). There is nothing to be ashamed of in begging for forgiveness for our sins and asking that we be protected from temptation. Jesus, however, would have us return to the matter of God’s kingdom and exaltation ("yours is the kindom and power and glory forever").
Compare this prayer to your own: do you spend more time longing for the establishment of God’s reign and will than you spend asking for all of your problems to go away? Paradoxically, perhaps, God’s reign and the advent of his kingdom is the only thing that can make all of your problems go away. In our prayers this week, public and private, may we recognize our membership in the kingdom, may we long for its establishment, and may we pray to be granted the opportunity to witness to its appearance! That is a prayer God will always heed.