There is much we can learn from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14. I recently noticed a difference between the two prayers that I cannot remember seeing before. Notice the way the Pharisee uses “that.”
Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
Tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
It seems there’s a difference between praying “I thank you that…” and praying “Thank you…” The same goes for prayers of praise, confession, or petition.
It’s much easier when praying with “that” to state what we intend to pray rather than to actually pray it. The word “that” can introduce an extra measure of distance or formality—even performance—to our prayers that should not be present.
Think about it—we (usually) don’t speak this way to each other. Aren’t you more likely to say “Jim, would you pass me the salt?” instead of “Jim, I ask that you pass me the salt”?
I’ve noticed “that” showing up in my prayers recently, and I’m now especially tuned in when praying with other people. I’ve heard it in my children’s prayers too, and I suspect they’ve picked it up from me.
Now, I’m not saying this is a terrible way to pray or that it should be avoided at all costs. After all, Jesus prayed this way on at least one occasion (Matt 11:25)!
My point is simply this: We should be aware of the words we’re using in prayer. Those words can shape us and our relationship with God. They can also reflect how we view this relationship. When we “pray that,” it is easier to create or imagine relational space between us and God.
God is our gracious, heavenly father, so he will hear and answer us. There is no perfect way to pray! I’m raising this issue merely as a way to remind myself (and possibly you) of the warmth and closeness we have when speaking with God.
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