Pray With Confidence (Not Like the Gentiles)
“Hear me, Silver Bow,
protector of Chryse and holy Cilla,
high lord of Tenedos:
if ever I built a shrine that pleased you,
if ever I burned the fat thighs of a bull or goat for you,
grant my wish: Smintheus,
with your arrows make the Greeks pay for my tears.”
Thus prayed Chryses to his god, Apollo, in Homer’s Iliad.
A priest of Apollo, Chryses had his beautiful daughter captured by the Greek king, Agamemnon. He humbly begged him to return his daughter in exchange for a generous ransom. But the Greek king said that his daughter would share his bed far away in his own country. He threatened Chryses and sent him away in great sadness. When alone, Chryses offered the above prayer to Apollo, who answered by sending his wrath upon the Greeks.
Notice how many lofty titles Chryses ascribes to his god: “Silver bow...high lord of Tenedos,” etc. Gentiles spent the first portion of their prayers buttering up their gods so they would grant their requests. Later in the prayer he calls him, “Smintheus,” which means “mouse.” This may sound unflattering, but on the contrary, my classical mythology professor suggested that by using this ancient and rare name for Apollo it may have caused him to listen to Chryses' prayer. You see, the gods of Mt. Olympus were often too busy or disinterested to listen to the prayers offered to them. But not everyone called Apollo by his name, “Smintheus.” This may have caught Apollo’s attention and caused him to listen. It illustrates how these poor Gentiles had to “heap up empty phrases” in order to win the ear of their gods.
Note also how Chryses tries to conciliate Apollo with his good works of building shrines and offering sacrifices to him. This, too, is intended to placate Apollo and win his favor so that he will grant his request.
Our Lord Jesus instructs us not to pray like these confused Gentiles:
"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…” (Matt. 6:7-9a)
How refreshingly simple is the address to God in The Lord's Prayer: “Our Father in heaven.” This assumes that our Father’s ear is already inclined to hear us and that we have no need to flatter him with lofty titles. Instead, with this simple address, “God thereby tenderly encourages us to believe that He is truly our Father and that we are truly His children, so that we may boldly and confidently come to Him in prayer, even as beloved children come to their dear father.” (Small Catechism, Part III)
By teaching us to call God, “Our Father,” Jesus teaches us to pray with confidence. He expands on this in Matthew 7:9-11, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
This Fatherly love of God for his children is what gives us confidence to pray. Therefore Jesus promises, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). If God ever denies our requests it must also be because of His love for us, as when earthly fathers deny shiny knives to their toddlers or shiny cars to their teenagers.
We should not take this confidence for granted, however. Some may wrongly assume that God automatically hears and grants the prayers of all people. But consider the following verses:
Psalm 34:15-16: “The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil...”
Proverbs 15:29: “The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.”
Virtually everyone prays but not everyone is heard. God gladly hears and answers the prayers of the righteous but not of the wicked. Therefore, when Jesus teaches his disciples to confidently pray to God as “Our Father,” he means “Father” in the sense that He is related to us by virtue of adoption and not only by virtue of creation. Only those who are redeemed by the blood of Christ and have received “adoption as sons” may now cry out, “Abba! Father!” through the Spirit of the Son who is poured into our hearts (Gal. 4:5-6).
The blood of Christ is the basis for our confidence in prayer. Our confidence is not like that of the Gentiles who “think that they will be heard for their many words.” We must never suppose that we will be heard because of any of our words. Our prayers do not have the power to placate, conciliate, or propitiate God toward us.
placate: to appease or pacify, especially by concessions or conciliatory gestures
conciliate: to overcome the distrust or hostility of; placate; win over
propitiate: to make favorably inclined; appease; conciliate.
Our prayers can't do any of that stuff for us. But they don't have to because Jesus already has. Only because of the high priestly work of Jesus does the author of Hebrews declare, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16).
The high priestly work of Jesus is what gives us confidence to pray. His sacrifice has made propitiation for our sins and has reconciled God to sinners (Heb. 2:17 & 2 Cor. 5:19). May we never ascribe to our prayers that which Scripture ascribes only to our Savior. Jesus’ blood, not human prayer, has moved the heart of God to forgive sinners. Although it is correct to say that prayer, as the expression of faith, appropriates and receives the forgiveness of sins which Christ has already won for us on the cross.
Prayer is the voice of faith. Faith is confidence in God’s grace--confidence that God receives us into His favor, not for our own sake, but for the sake of His Son Jesus, whose death has reconciled God to us. Faith and prayer are born from hearing the promise of this Gospel. And on the basis of this Gospel, Jesus teaches us to pray with confidence, “Our Father…”
Having begun with confidence, we conclude with confidence. Luther teaches us to end our prayers with a hearty, “Amen!” For “Amen” means “that I should be assured that these petitions are acceptable to our heavenly Father and are heard by Him; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this manner and has promised to hear us. Amen, Amen, that is, Yes, Yes, it shall be so.” (Small Catechism, Part III)