Lord, teach us to pray. It is a request a disciple makes of Jesus after observing him in prayer. The encounter is recorded in Luke 11:1-13.
Are you, like that disciple, hungering for more intimacy with God? As Jesus’s answer unfolds in three stages, he helps the disciples progressively see how prayer works.
Think of a Russian nesting doll—a figure within a figure within a figure. At each level we get closer to what stands at the center.
The outermost layer comes in verses 2-4. You would recognize it as a form of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus begins with a broad framework for prayer, an agenda. Every dimension of life is touched as you progress. In teaching us to pray, the first thing Jesus underscores is there is nothing God does not want to hear from us. In confidence, you are invited to bring every dimension of life before God.
But wait, inside that layer is another. In the next section, he switches from the framework of the prayer to the heart of the one praying. He tells a story of a man going to a neighbor, persistently knocking on the door until the neighbor responds. Is Jesus honoring impertinence? No. He is illustrating the conviction that you are going to the right place with your need.
The point is this: a framework for prayer means nothing if there is no sincerity underneath it. An empty heart makes for empty words. We could go through the motions of prayer, thinking that what we said was the key element, but God wants more than words in our praying. He wants our heart, believing that we are indeed going to the precise place we need to be.
So there you have it, right? Simple. Beneath the prayer is the heart of the one who is praying. Prayer works when we bring all of life with all of our heart before God.
Well, not quite.
A framework for prayer means nothing if there is no sincerity underneath it. An empty heart makes for empty words.
If our own sincerity was the only key, we would end up essentially trusting in ourselves, thinking that sincerity alone is what makes prayer work. That takes prayer out of the realm of relationship and into the dimension of personal achievement. “Hey, if I can just muster up enough faith, I can see this prayer answered.” Or worse, “If I had only had more faith, this wouldn’t have happened.”
And so Jesus takes us to the final layer within the layer within the layer. Beneath the heart of the one praying is the heart of the One to whom we pray. At the center, prayer matters because God’s heart welcomes us.
Jesus uses dads as an example, illustrating that as woefully imperfect as fathers can be, there is still an innate sense of understanding of what is in the best interest for our children. Who gives a snake instead of a fish? A scorpion instead of an egg?
He goes on to say, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (v. 13).
Ultimately, as important as our own sincerity is, it only matters because God is first sincerely interested in us. In the end it is not the prayer itself, and it is not the sincerity of the one praying.
Beneath it all stands this central truth: we can turn our heart toward God because God’s heart is already turned toward us. The disciple asked, “Lord teach us to pray.” Jesus ultimately taught them about the One to whom we pray.
As you read this, are you feeling loneliness, wilderness, fogginess? Take heart. God will hear, because God is already here.