Question 40: What should we pray?
Answer: The whole Word of God directs and inspires us in what we should pray, including the prayer Jesus himself taught us.
The catechism makes reference to "the prayer Jesus himself taught us," commonly known as the Lord's Prayer. That prayer is found in Matthew 6:9-13 (see also Luke 11:2-4). We will take a closer look at the Lord's Prayer when we come to Question 41 next week, but for today we can benefit from taking a look at the teaching on prayer Jesus offers just before giving his disciples a model of how to pray. In Matthew 6:5-8 we read,
And when you pray, do 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.
Here Jesus teaches us two things we must not do in prayer. First, we must not pray for the purpose of impressing others with our devotion. Jesus does not teach us to avoid ever praying in the hearing of others. That's not the point. The point is our motivation when we pray. If our primary purpose in praying is to craft eloquent words that will make others think highly of us, then impressing others will be the extent of our reward when we pray. Such hypocritical prayers accomplish nothing with God, who remains unimpressed by our self-oriented hearts. True prayer is the kind of prayer that can be offered in any setting, calling out to God from a heart that sincerely desires to know him and trusts him to hear and answer us in his fatherly love. Jesus commands us to pray in this way, and he holds out the prospect of reward from God as our motivation for doing so. True, heartfelt prayer that has no regard for pleasing man but is entirely focused on God is prayer to which God will hearken in grace.
And then second, we must not pray by heaping up empty phrases. Jesus says the Gentiles, or pagans, pray in this way, believing that the gods are more inclined to listen to those who distinguish themselves by their repetitive, verbose approach to prayer. Jesus tells us that if we think of God this way, we are thinking more like pagans than true worshipers. Instead of assuming that God will hear us in a way proportional to the amount of noise we make to get his attention, we should instead rest in his sovereignty. Indeed, we can't even bring a need to him that he doesn't already know about! What is required is not a flood of pious sounding words or a repetitive mantra that displays our devotion to prayer. Rather, God simply wants us to come to him with open, honest hearts, calling upon him in faith as a loving Father, recognizing his transcendence and sovereignty.
Suggested passage for personal or family reading: Matthew 6:5-8. What does this passage teach us about how we should not pray? What does it teach us about how we should pray? What do we learn about God from Jesus' teachings here?