After watching the viral video of Tennessee pastor Joe Nelms’ pre-race Nascar prayer I laughed pretty hard. There’s something that was right about his prayer: we should thank God for everything, even Nascar technology. Christians often imagine that God cares about ‘spiritual’ things, but feels neutral about everything else. That’s a false dichotomy that we need to reject, even in our prayers. That said, Nelms’ quote from Taledega Nights, “Lord I want to thank you for my smokin’ hot wife” and conclusion, “boogity, boogity, boogity Amen” sounded irreverent. This started me thinking about reverence in our prayers.
In public prayers I confess that I’ve been irreverent. I’ve prayed to “little 6 pound, 8 ounce baby Jesus”, for a laugh. I’ve also heard people pray to “daddy” and “abba” to get attention (not out of humble sonship). I’ve even heard people make jokes during prayers.
All of this might seem harmless and nit-picky. Some people even justify irreverence by arguing, “God has a sense of humor,” and he certainly does, but the bible doesn’t tell us exactly what he finds funny. Moreover there are no examples of stand-up-comedy-prayers in the bible.
In Leviticus we read the story of two irreverent brothers named Nadab and Abihu. Their father, Aaron, was the high priest and they themselves served God as priests. But one day they decided to irreverently ignore God’s prescribed methods of approaching him, and instead barged in with “unauthorized fire before the Lord.” What happened? “Fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:1,2).
God goes on to explain why he destroyed them, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified and before all the people I will be glorified” (Lev. 10:3). God does not take his glory lightly, and demands sincere reverence from his followers.
So, is God overreacting? By our standards human standards, yes. But our human standards fall short, because we’re separated from God–we forget about his holiness, power, glory, love and justice. We forget that he deserves humble awe and praise from all his creatures. We forget that he commands us, “Fear the Lord your God” over 32 times in the bible. God takes his glory seriously, even if we don’t.
The bible is full of figures who come before God with sincere reverence, but this does not mean tight lipped formality. We see Jesus, Moses, David, and more express incredible intimacy with God in their prayers. True reverence means humble awe at the grandeur, power, might, glory, mercy, justice, and love of God.
Where do we find that humility? At the cross. When we come before the cross, we see how unworthy we are of God’s love. We see that our sin is so wicked that the son of God had to die for us. At the cross we discover that we can do nothing to make ourselves right with God, but also that God did everything.
On the cross we also find our confidence to pray with intimacy. We see that God loved us enough to die for us. Moreover, we see that God died to make us his treasured sons and daughters. Therefore, we pray like sons and daughters, both humble and confident, to our heavenly father.
That’s how Jesus prayed, with humble confidence. Our prayers should never sounded like a spoiled sixteen year-old, irreverently disrespecting our father’s glory, but instead like an awe-filled child wildly in love with his gloriously holy father.