Giving, fasting and prayer are the traditional Lenten disciplines due to Jesus’ mention of them in Matthew 6. I find prayer to be the hardest. I find giving and fasting hard to do too, but at least they seem more tangible. You can see the results of giving and feel the results of fasting. But not with prayer. My mind wanders when I pray. I get impatient. I doubt. I don’t get the answers I want. People will tell me its because I don’t have enough faith. And that’s true, but at least with less faith you get less disappointment. I can’t tell you the number of pious people I’ve had to coax back from the edge of apostasy due to their unanswered prayers. Our expectations of prayer are high, which we can blame completely on Jesus. He’s the one who said ask for anything in his name and its yours.
The trick seems to be praying in secret with the door closed (Matthew 6:6). Do that “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” But that’s not always true either. It might help to know that Jesus employs a bit of hyperbole here. Given that most ancient Palestinian homes only had two rooms, praying secretly in a room without anyone knowing would have been as difficult as your left hand not knowing what your right hand was doing when it came to giving. Likewise, few Jews deliberately prayed in the streets any more than they announced their giving by blowing trumpets. The concern, it seems, is our heart.
Motivation matters when it comes to prayer, perhaps even more so than faith. So much of my praying is prayer for faith. Jesus also warns against praying like pagan Gentiles—idol-worshippers who babble on and on because they think they’ll be heard if they say enough words. Granted, you have to talk a lot if you’re trying to get a statue to do anything, but that pagans persisted indicates they had plenty of faith, misplaced though it was. By contrast, Jesus says, “your Father knows what you need before you ask;” the implication being that weak faith and inadequate words will do. Moreover, presuming that God knows your needs even better than you do, a further implication is that God sometimes gives despite what you ask. To receive such undesired gifts from God requires that we trust God knows what he’s doing, that like any loving Father, his concern is more for our ultimate well-being than for our immediate wishes. If the cross is any indication, not even Jesus got everything he prayed for.