We are not inconveniencing God when we pray as Jesus’ followers. God is not indifferent, but devoted. After all, Jesus instructs us to refer to God as “our Father.” He invites us to pray to his own Father and to dare to draw near in what is known as the Lord’s Prayer.
We find out quite a bit about God and about how we are to pray in Matthew 6. The verses just prior to the Lord’s Prayer and the first verse of the Lord’s Prayer read,
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name… (Matthew 6:5-9; ESV).
We don’t have to pray in the public square like hypocrites who like to be seen, for God sees us in our enclosed rooms and closets. We don’t need to pray on loudspeakers or repeat the same words ad infinitum, like heathens who fear they won’t be heard. God hears us, whether we cry out in a loud voice or in our hearts, and whether we utter many words or few. Calvin reflects upon the Lord Jesus’ words here along the following lines:
Use not vain repetitions. He reproves another fault in prayer, a multiplicity of words. There are two words used, but in the same sense: for battologia is “a superfluous and affected repetition,” and polulogia is “unmeaning talk.” Christ reproves the folly of those who, with the view of persuading and entreating God, pour out a superfluity of words. This doctrine is not inconsistent with the praises everywhere bestowed in Scripture on earnestness in prayer: for, when prayer is offered with earnest feeling, the tongue does not go before the heart. Besides, the grace of God is not obtained by an unmeaning flow of words; but, on the contrary, a devout heart throws out its affections, like arrows, to pierce heaven. At the same time, this condemns the superstition of those who entertain the belief, that they will secure the favor of God by long murmurings.
God knows our hearts, and so we must pray from the heart, no matter the number of words. Moreover, just as God sees and hears us no matter if we pray publicly or privately, loudly or quietly, with many or few words, God also knows what we need even before we ask. God sees. God hears. God knows.
God also cares and has the power to act. He is our Father, who is in heaven. We are to hallow his name. We cannot control him as many thought you could control deities (like genies in a bottle) by knowing their names and repeating their names to get the answers they wanted. Rather, God controls the world, including our destinies, as the Lord of the highest heaven.
The Father of Jesus is not an unmoved mover or distant deity who is hard of hearing, but one who is turned toward us, knows our situation, and our need. He reaches out first. After all, he initiated by sending Jesus who taught us to think of God in this way and how to pray. He is our Father. And while he was the Father of the nation of Israel, he takes on even greater intimate fatherly import in Jesus’ and his followers’ lives. Pray to him as “Our Father…” N.T. Wright puts the matter in the following terms:
Jesus’ own address to God, it appears, regularly included “Father.” Though the Aramaic word Abba is only found in the Gospels in the Gethsemane narrative at Mark 14:36, there is a broad consensus (1) that Jesus indeed used this word in prayer, and (2) that the notion of God’s fatherhood — though, of course, known also in Judaism — took central place in his own attitude to God in a distinctive way. So when the prayer given to his followers begins with “Father” (Luke 11:2) or “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9; cf. Didache 8:2-3, which also begins “Our Father”), we must understand that Jesus wants them to see themselves as sharing his own characteristic spirituality — that is, his own intimate, familial approach to the Creator. The idea of God’s fatherhood, and of building this concept into the life of prayer, was not, as must again be stressed, a novelty within Judaism. But the centrality and particular emphasis that Jesus gave it represents a new departure.
Seen with Christian hindsight — more specifically, with trinitarian perspective — the Lord’s Prayer becomes an invitation to share in the divine life itself. It becomes one of the high roads into the central mystery of Christian salvation and Christian existence: that the baptized and believing Christian is (1) incorporated into the inner life of the triune God and (2) intended not just to believe that this is the case, but actually to experience it.
We participate in the triune God’s life and are caught up in the fulfillment of salvation history. Jesus’ person and ministry is the ultimate eschatological reality for Israel and the nations, which is the fulfilment of the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. With this point in mind, it makes sense that Wright would call this prayer “the ‘true Exodus’ prayer of God’s people.” To use Irenaean language of recapitulation, Jesus takes up, transforms and perfects Israel’s and the world’s history, even as he is baptized (Matthew 3) and tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4), gives the Law of the New Covenant to his people (Matthew 5-7), as well as this Exodus prayer (Matthew 6).
This God whose name we are to hallow and revere is not indifferent to us as his beloved people. Unlike the Egyptian and Roman overlords and gods then and now, he treats us as his prized possession, a people for his name. He is not indifferent to us, and he is the ultimate difference. His name translated as “The Lord” differentiated the God of the Patriarchs from the Egyptians’ and tribal deities: “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’” (Exodus 3:15; ESV). Remember, too, Moses’ prayer to God recorded in Exodus 33:15-16. “The Lord” alone was what differentiated Israel from the surrounding nations: “And he said to him, ‘If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?’” (ESV) God agrees to go with Moses and the people based on Moses’ request, for he has found favor in his sight and he knows Moses by name (Exodus 33:17). All who bear Jesus’ name and pray in his name from the heart also find favor in God’s eyes.
We are not invited to pray to indifferent deities, or to ourselves, as our narcissistic culture may prefer, but to our heavenly Father whose name is hallowed, and who hears the cry of his people and comes down to deliver them, just as he delivered his people from Pharaoh millennia ago. What a comfort and privilege. Jesus invites us into the intimacy of his prayerful communion with his Father, the Father of his people, Israel, and his people, the Church. We are now participants in the divine, triune life of God. Dare to draw near as God leads us out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.