Reading: Matthew 6:5-15
There is not a lot of teaching about prayer in the Old Testament – not from Moses, not from the prophets. There are many examples of prayer in the Old Testament but the real teacher on prayer is Jesus.
Today’s words are very familiar to most of us. Some of them we recite every week. This is part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount where he teaches about the Kingdom of God. Part of living in God’s Kingdom is prayer – relating to the King – and so Jesus gives some basic lessons on prayer.
He doesn’t tell us to pray. He simply says, “When you pray…” He assumes we will pray.
That makes perfect sense. If we have the opportunity of a personal audience with the God of the universe, why would we not pray? If there is peace and joy in simply being in the presence of God, why would we not pray? If there is the potential to receive answers to our prayers from a Father who loves us – if miracles can take place – why would we not pray?
Yet many Christians do not pray, or pray very little. Why would that be? Is it because we don’t fully believe that God is a good Father who loves us and who gives good gifts to those who ask? We might benefit from writing down answers to the question, Why do I not pray as I would like to?
Anyway, Jesus assumes we will pray; citizens of the Kingdom of God talk regularly to the King.
He then addresses two issues and gives a model prayer.
First issue: don’t pray like the hypocrites who pray in public and make a big display of it. Instead, go into your room, close the door and pray in secret.
This is the where of prayer. Where should we pray? In private. I think there is a lesson we should learn from this and a lesson we shouldn’t learn from it.
The lesson we should learn is that it is important that we have quiet, uninterrupted time with God. Life is so busy that time with God can easily get squeezed out. Amidst all of the noise, we cannot hear God’s voice. There is a discipline in finding that quiet place and taking time with God.
Jesus did regularly. In Mark 1 we read that very early in the morning, Jesus went away by Himself to pray. In Mark 6 Jesus dismissed the crowds and went up on a mountain, by Himself, to pray. In Luke 5 we read that great crowds came to Him to listen and to be healed but he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. In Luke 6 He prayed all night alone on a mountain before selecting the twelve disciples. In Luke 9 He again prayed alone. In Luke 11 He prayed while the disciples, it seems, watched.
Sometimes He took Peter, James and John with Him but even then there was a sense that Jesus prayed alone, with them close, such as at the Transfiguration and when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus both modelled and taught, finding a quiet place, alone, to pray. That in itself is a valuable prayer lesson. It won’t just happen. We have to make it happen. Some young mothers, with all the demands of little children, realise that the only quiet place they can find is in the toilet!
Suzanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley, had 18 children but when they saw her sitting with her apron pulled up over her head, they knew she was not to be disturbed. She was praying.
What about the lesson we shouldn’t learn from this? Jesus is not teaching that we should not pray publicly. Actually, I think this question of where to pray is only incidental to what Jesus is really saying. What is Jesus’ main point here?
It is a question of motivation. It is not a where question but a why question. It was not that it was wrong for the hypocrites to pray in public. It was that it was wrong for them to pray in public “so as to be seen by others.” It was not the place that was wrong. It was the motivation.
Why were they praying in public? So as to be seen. It was about their pride; their reputations; the honour they would receive.
That can be a real trap with prayer. We can pray so as to impress other people. We can easily be more conscious of the people who are listening than we are of the God who is listening. We can phrase our prayers so as to appear intelligent or spiritual. We can work hard to put together nice words. We might desire to be seen as godly or as profound or deep.
Sometimes people pray but they are actually preaching to the people listened. They are trying to impress people more than simply talk to God.
The question is: Why are you praying in public? Or, why are you praying that way in public?
Or we could ask the opposite question: Why do you not pray in public? Is that also because you are more conscious of the other people than you are of God? Or that you are again concerned primarily for your reputation. It is not a question of whether or not we pray in public. It is a question of our heart motivation.
Jesus made a very interesting comment. He said, “They have received their reward in full.” They want recognition. They want to impress. They want a following. They can have that but that is all they will receive. The fruit of their prayers will be the honour they desire but that’s all. They won’t grow in their relationship with God. They won’t see those prayers answered. They might receive what they want but they won’t receive the things that prayer is really about.
Going to a private place removes all of those temptations. Then prayer can be more sincere.
Jesus made a wonderful promise: Go and pray in secret, then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. Pray to your Father – with a right motivation – and He will answer. We looked at that a fortnight ago. Jesus is very emphatic that God loves to answer the prayers of His children.
Is it wrong to pray publicly? No. There were times in the Old Testament when the whole nation was called to prayer. Daniel’s faith was seen in his willingness to be seen praying and not hiding it. Jesus talked about where two or three are gathered. Jesus prayed surrounded by crowds. He prayed with the disciples. The early church had powerful prayer meetings. Prayer together is really important. Jesus was not talking about where or even how many, so much as about why.
Then He said, ‘Don’t pray like the pagans who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Their prayers were “babbling” (NIV) or “heaping up empty words (ESV).
Think of the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel in their contest with Elijah (1 Kings 18). They danced and screamed and shouted and cut themselves for hours on end. Nothing happened.
Eventually Elijah got his turn. He prayed, “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
Fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice, the stones, the soil and the water.
Did you notice that Elijah didn’t even have to tell God what to do? He didn’t even mention fire. He just said, “Answer me, Lord.”
Jesus said we don’t have to go on and on; God already knows what we need before we even ask. We don’t have to badger God to persuade Him. He is already willing. He doesn’t need the problem explained in great detail. We don’t have to tell Him what the answer should be. He already knows what we need. It is not about many words, or fancy words.
Then Jesus said, “Pray like this” and He gave the prayer we call the “Lord’s Prayer”. It is a model of conciseness and simplicity. There are really only five requests in that prayer. We acknowledge who it is we pray to. Remember, we are not talking to the people around us; we are praying to our Father in Heaven. Then we pray for God’s glory, for God’s Kingdom to come, for our daily needs, for our forgiveness and for our protection and help to live a godly life. That’s it!
Again, let’s beware of misunderstanding what Jesus is teaching. He is not saying that all our prayers should be short and dispassionate. Think of Hannah praying in the temple for a child. She was so emotional, Eli thought she was drunk! Think of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, worked up to the point that His sweat was falling like great drops of blood, or on the cross crying out.
Again, it is a question of motivation. It is not that passion is right or wrong but of why we pray in a particular way. Are we putting on a great show for others to see? Do we think that emotion and some suitable histrionics will impress God? If the motivation is wrong, it won’t impress God one little bit.
But what if the passion flows from deep, deep longing or grief or great joy? What if our cries are the sincere cries of our hearts? Then it would be wrong to be calm and quiet. Why are we not more passionate at times? Do we not care? Are we not grieved? Is it again that we are worried what people will think? We can be passionate to impress or we can be dispassionate to impress. But why are we worried about people? If our motivation is to impress people, we have misunderstood prayer.
This is Prayer 101. Jesus doesn’t deal so much with technique or the theology of prayer. He deals with the very real, very practical matters of our hearts. What is our motivation when we come to prayer? Is it to impress others? To guard against that, pray privately. Do we think you have to impress God with our many fine words? We don’t. He already knows what we need.
Prayer 101 contains two lessons. Firstly, prayer is not about a performance that impresses others. It is about sincerity.
A sincere heart just wants to do business with God irrespective of what other think and irrespective of whether others even know or not. Sincerity is shown by our willingness to pray privately.
Secondly, note how often Jesus refers to “your Father”.
v.6 – pray to your Father who is unseen
v.6 – then your Father… will reward you
v.8 – your Father knows what you need.
v.9 – this is how you should pray: “Our Father…”
v.14 – your heavenly Father will forgive you
v.15 – but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you.
Jesus emphasises the fatherly nature of God, just as it was in the passage we looked at a fortnight ago: how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask. Your Father will answer. Your Father already knows.
So, two lessons that will deepen our prayer life:
- Prayer is not a performance for other people to see. God will respond to sincerity.
- Pray in faith. Pray believing that you are talking to your Father who doesn’t need to be persuaded or battered into submission by your long prayers. He is your Father. He knows what you need and He will answer.
Prayer sincerely. Pray believing.