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True prayer is God-aware
True prayer is conscious of God. It is very much aware that God is God and that I am human – that I, and my praying, are not the most important thing. God, and his glory, and his kingdom, and his will: these are the most important thing.

For this reason:

(1) True prayer is not focused on the human act of praying
My act of praying is meaningless in itself. It is meaningful and significant only because God is who he is. If I am not conscious of God, and of who he is, when I pray, then regardless of how hard I pray, or how long I pray, or how enthusiastically I pray, or how sacrificially I pray, my prayers are empty words. We read in the Scripture:

‘When you fasted and mourned … was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking: … were you not just feasting for yourselves?’ [Zechariah 7:5ff]

‘When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.’ [Matthew 6:5]

‘And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.’ [Matthew 6:7]

‘When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting …’ [Matthew 6:16ff]

‘They … for a show make lengthy prayers.’ [Luke 20:47]

(2) True prayer does not brag in the presence of God
True prayer does not enter the presence of God with a list of personal credentials on the basis of which God’s favour is sought and expected.  Such personal bragging in God’s presence is totally at odds with what the Bible tells us about God’s holiness and our personal sinfulness. It is also at odds with the whole concept of grace. Answered prayer, like salvation, is always a gift, a grace.

Jesus told of a man who prayed with such a list: ‘The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evil doers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’ [Luke 18:11,12]. For all his perceived religious credentials, neither this man, nor his prayer, was acceptable to God.

True prayer always approaches the throne of God as the throne of grace depending on God’s mercy, never as a throne of judgement that responds on the basis of merit.

(3) True prayer is not a cover-up
True prayer knows that God sees and knows everything. True prayer knows that it cannot pretend in the presence of the omniscient God, that it cannot fool God with a grand show of formal spirituality or ritual piety. True prayer knows that true piety, true spirituality, is expressed in the nitty-gritty of life – in the home, in the workplace, in the community. True prayer knows that love for God is confirmed in love for the neighbour.

For this reason, the Scripture is scornful of prayer that is so unaware of God that it is oblivious of any inconsistency between piety and practice:

 ‘… Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers … you cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high …’ (Isaiah 58:1-14. Read whole passage))

‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.’ (Hosea 6:6

‘You women who oppress the poor and crush the needy … Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning …’ (Amos 4:1-13. Read all the verses)

‘Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them … let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.’ (Amos 5:22ff)

The devotion to God supposedly expressed in prayer must also be paralleled by devotion to God in the give and take of life. Otherwise the praying is at best a mere ritual, and at worst a hypocritical mask.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2017