Teaching through Leviticus can do strange things to you.
Between all the sacrifices and laws and weird details about menstrual cycles and eating shellfish, some things began to come together for me in ways they hadn’t before. Rituals and disciplines have been part of the Christian life for centuries. Yet, how often have we neglected their importance in recent decades? I know I have. I’m not a ritual kind of person. I love novelty, and I don’t like to do the same thing twice very often. (Unless it’s reading/watching Lord of the Rings or Pride and Prejudice. These can be done multiple times a year, if necessary.)
What I hadn’t noticed is that these rituals that define and describe our life with God are catalogued in Leviticus, not as a bunch of strange laws, but as a way of making order in a chaotic world to draw us toward our Creator.
Now, we don’t participate in sacrifices or casting people out of the tent for a week. We do, however, practice rituals and disciplines that order our lives with God. The most important is prayer.
What is the point of prayer? It seems reasonable to start focusing that question with what we call the Lord’s Prayer—a small part of Matthew 6 where, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, and he told them. It’s not a magical prayer that we use to get what we want from God. We don’t just repeat it and hope that good things will happen because we do. It’s not a mantra or a spell. But it is a good example and pattern for us to follow in prayer. So in asking why pray? —it’s a good starting point.
The doctor I see for my Restless Leg Syndrome has helped me learn new bedtime routines that make the difficult task of falling asleep with RLS a little easier. Now, I know that if I want to succeed in a good night’s sleep, I start a few things in the hours before.
I stretch. Maybe do a few yoga moves. I take a few turns around the dining room table and, if it’s really bad, I apply some heating pads. Much earlier, I’ve forgone caffeine and exercise during the day. I turn off all the screens by nine. This last one is huge. Along with taking the medication she’s given me, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to sleep.
Our hearts in the minutes before prayer also require some routines and exercises to prepare us for a good conversation in prayer. Jesus begins:
“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?
“Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6.5-6, Message)
First, Jesus tells us to find a quiet secluded place. Why? So we won’t make a public production of our prayers. We need to be able to get alone with God and focus on him. The last thing we need is to focus on how other people are perceiving how we pray. A lot of people, including myself, the pastor, don’t like to pray in public. There is an important place for communal prayer, and I think we need to all practice it. But first, we need to practice being alone with God and being honest with him. If we don’t get that straight, we won’t pray together straight either.
Jesus has just taught his followers the same concept regarding giving. When we give away our money, time, or whatever, we’re not supposed to do it in a showy way. We quietly obey God by being generous while keeping it to ourselves as best we can. It’s not a false humility where we actually take pride in being so humble and secretive about how awesome we are. It’s a quiet humility that knows everything we have is from God anyway, and our ability to give is the result of God’s generosity.
Then, Jesus teaches the same thing about prayer. Don’t pray as a show. Pray as a relationship between two beings.
I wouldn’t go to my spouse and, wanting to chat about our plans for the weekend, create a dramatic production of my pitch and sell tickets to the neighbors. This isn’t how a relationship works.
If we’re focused on making a production of our prayer and worrying about how others see it, we’re not really focused on God. We’re not putting ourselves in a place of humble acceptance of whatever he has to say. We’re thinking of ourselves, and that is a terrible way to approach prayer.
Not only that, but we all know people whose voice changes when they are praying in public. They suddenly have a “holy voice” instead of the regular one that they use with us. It’s kind of weird, but most of us do it sometimes. We think we have to put on a holy voice to sound like we are being holy in front of other people. But really, Jesus asks us to come and speak like we’re talking to someone we love, and it should sound that way. Otherwise, we’re in danger of pride as we pray, and that will definitely keep us from hearing God.
So the first thing Jesus teaches us is those beautiful words—“just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” When we shift our focus, and it happens without us realizing it usually, God’s grace becomes so apparent. We feel God’s presence. We forget about ourselves, and we begin to think about our Creator. We begin to think about listening instead of speaking.
Isn’t it beautiful that the writer tells us we can pray very simply to God because he already knows what we want and, more importantly, what we need? There are no special words to say to get what we want. Our focus is not supposed to be getting what we want. It’s supposed to be talking to God. It’s kind of like when I was a kid and came into the living room and just sat down at the foot of my dad’s chair and leaned on his knee. I didn’t want anything from him. I just wanted to be in his presence. I loved being with him. That’s what God wants from us when we come in prayer.
“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.” (Matthew 6.7-8)
My daughter regularly grumbles about the vending machine at work. I have to agree with her—there is nothing worse than putting in your dollar, pushing the buttons that correspond to a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, and seeing a bag of pretzels drops into the slot instead. This is not what we ordered. We paid good money, and we got a dud.
Yet a lot of people approach prayer similarly. We believe that if we put in certain words, a holy vocal timbre, or the right dollop of faith, what we want from God will drop in the slot. When it doesn’t happen, we get ticked off at God.
Prayer isn’t a formula. Prayer is definitely not a transaction. God isn’t a vending machine ready to offer us what we want if only we find the right buttons to push. Can you imagine treating someone you love like that? No one feels loved by a manipulator.
With a loving God, we can pray very simply. Prayer, first, is about a relationship. It’s about chatting with and listening to the One who loves you more than you can even imagine. That’s what Jesus is trying to get across when he tells us to approach God quietly, with humility, and without any pretense of games.
Next time, we’ll begin the famous first words a lot of us know: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.