I’ve found myself praying a lot more than usual during the last few months, but the prayers have been different. Often my prayers are bold, brash, and pragmatic, asking God to provide something or do something or help me out in some specific way. Then I sit back and see if the prayer gets answered. And some of my prayers during this time have been like that—like “God, would you end this virus.” But most of my prayers during this period have been different: more simple, honest, and communal—like “God, I need you” or “God, please help” or “God, thank you” or “God, give me wisdom.” It’s as if the peculiarity of this time has stripped down my prayer life and named the truest parts of my relationship with God.
Our audible and/or conscious prayers can often be fairly selfish prayers of petition, where we’re asking God to provide something for us. And I think that’s because we don’t really know what else to talk to God about. But I think if we were able to acknowledge and name the truest prayers of our hearts—the true desires we wish to express to a power greater than ourselves—we would more often find ourselves praying these simple, beautiful, communal prayers. We would pray like the psalmist, saying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts.” Deep in our inmost parts, we really just want to know God and be known.
Which is what Jesus says will happen when we pray sincerely.
In Matthew 6:6, Jesus offers us these instructions about prayer: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Now, at first glance, that sort of prayer still feels like a bold, brash, and pragmatic prayer of petition, where we ask God for something and then await our reward: the answer to our prayers. But that’s not exactly the picture the Greek word for “reward” (apodosei) is trying to convey. The word literally means “to give back” or “return.” So, the pray-er gives something…and then God gives it back or returns it. Which, what does the pray-er give? Nothing more than time, attention, dedication, and complete presence. So then, that is the ‘reward’ we get back from God; the thing he gives back or returns. Sometimes God responds to our prayers of petition with practical and tangible answers. But God always responds to the deepest, simplest prayers of our hearts with time, attention, dedication, and complete presence.
And the point I’m making about God’s “rewards” is only further confirmed through the next section of text about fasting, where Jesus uses the same Greek word to once again say that we will be rewarded for fasting—which the reward here is clearly not physical or practical, but can only be meant in terms of God’s time, attention, dedication, and complete presence. When we are present to God through fasting, He is present with us as well. And the same is true in prayer.
So, the point I’ve not-so-succinctly spent nearly 700 words to arrive at is simple: when you pray, especially in this time, allow your prayers to be simple, honest, and real, tapping into your deepest and inmost parts. Because the reward for these prayers is intimate community with the Creator of the universe, your Father in heaven. Yes, we should pray bold, brash, and pragmatic prayers for God to do the miraculous in our world. But Jesus’ wisdom for us in this time (and beyond) is to primarily be people who spend their prayer life in simple, honest, and communal time with God, because when we do, we will be rewarded with God’s very presence—including his comfort, peace, assurance, and hope. He rewards our prayer lives through giving back. When we lean into Him, He leans right back. He meets us in that place and rewards us with His very self.
So, may you lean into God’s presence during this time of uncertainty and stress, and truly sense God returning the favor.