Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” [Luke 11:1 (NLT)]
Legend has it that pretzels were originally made by Italian monks around 610 AD as a way to teach prayers. They would fold strips of dough into the shape of crossed arms which was the established posture for prayer at that time. When children had memorized the prayers taught them by the monks, they’d be rewarded with these treats.
Those monks, however, weren’t the first who taught people how to pray. Back in Jesus’ day, religious leaders were expected to teach their disciples how to pray. Although a typical request of one’s teacher, Jesus was anything but a typical teacher. He’d walked on water, stilled storms, healed the sick, raised the dead and turned water into wine. Oddly, his disciples didn’t ask how to do those impressive miracles. Instead, they asked how to pray. Although they didn’t completely recognize the divinity of their teacher, the disciples understood that His power seemed to come from prayer. Jesus prayed at his baptism, after healing people, and before choosing his disciples. He prayed before heading to Galilee, before feeding the 5,000, and before walking on water. He prayed before raising Lazarus from the dead, while healing the deaf man, and when blessing the little children. He prayed for Peter’s faith, in Gethsemane, and when He was nailed to the cross. When He wasn’t teaching or performing a miracle, Jesus seemed to be praying. In fact, he’d just been praying when the disciples asked him how to pray!
To answer the disciples, Jesus prayed what is known as The Lord’s Prayer. This simple prayer gave them (and us) the guidelines for all prayer: praise, thanksgiving, supplication, forgiveness, and protection from evil. Yet, for some reason, we Christians aren’t satisfied with such a straightforward process. Surely something so powerful must be more complicated! What words should we use? When should we pray? Should we stand or kneel? Do I cross my arms or fold my hands? Should I look up or down? What about candles, incense or fasting? Can we pray out loud or in public? Prayer, however, isn’t meant to be that difficult. In fact, God really gave us only one rule: “You must not have any other god but me.” [Exodus 20:3] Although we are told to pray, the rest is pretty much up to us.
While there are no other rules, Jesus made it clear that we must have the right attitude when we pray. He condemned the hypocrites who self-righteously prayed loudly for show. Prayer is not a means to impress others with our piety; we are to approach God with meek and contrite hearts. Although Jesus encouraged persistent prayer, He also criticized prayers that were mindlessly repeated. We do not pray with our lips but rather with our hearts.
Other than the Lord’s Prayer, which is just a blueprint for prayer, we haven’t been given a specific prayer to recite. In fact, the one prayer Jesus commends is perhaps the simplest one—that of the repentant tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” [Luke 18:13b] There’s a plainly expressed sincere prayer, offered with a humble and repentant heart and Jesus assures us that it will be heard.