[Note: This is the introduction to a multi-part series on prayer based on the Lord’s Prayer]
“Teach Us to Pray”
In Chapter 6 of Matthew, Jesus teaches His disciples much about prayer, in Matthew 6:5-8 He says:
5 ” And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
6 “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
7 “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.
8 “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.
Do you regularly pray? I hope you do because Jesus assumes that his followers will pray regularly. You’ll notice that He started out talking about prayer by saying, “when you pray” not, “if you pray” and then He went on to discuss the key to true prayer, which isn’t to be found in the place that you pray, or the way that you pray, or the length of your prayers, but in the disposition of the heart of the one praying.
Throughout this section of Sermon of the Mount, Jesus is speaking to His disciples about the difference that grace in the heart makes, how it is the key to a deeper righteousness than the Pharisees ever had, indeed than they could even understand. They saw the doing of good works, things like prayer and almsgiving as the key to righteousness, while Christ explains that true religion is exactly the opposite way round. Righteousness is actually the key to good works and that it is only through being united to Christ by faith that we could have the true righteousness that makes a man truly blessed.
But what is prayer? There are lots of answers to that question. Many think of prayer merely as a required duty, others think of it as something that makes them feel better, some others see it as a kind of magical incantation designed to get us what we need, but Jesus explains that true prayer is none of these things. Prayer is a familiar way of speaking to God by someone who is intimately acquainted with Him. One could almost describe it as a conversation with God, but that would be to make it too informal. I appreciate the way Westminster Shorter Catechism answers this question:
98. What is prayer?
A. Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
Jesus is eager that we would pray but He doesn’t want his followers to pray in the empty and fruitless way that so many do. The first thing He emphasizes, therefore, is for us to remember who true prayer is to be directed towards. Why would He need to do that? Because most people get it wrong. The heathens pray in vain to the wrong God, but even people who believe in the true God, often aren’t speaking to Him when they pray. The Pharisees, for instance, frequently prayed to be seen and heard by people, not God. You see observant Jews prayed three times a day at set hours, Psalm 55:17 Evening and morning and at noon I will pray, and cry aloud, And He shall hear my voice. That was how, for instance, Daniel’s enemies knew they could entrap him, they knew Daniel would always pray to Jehovah three times a day regardless of his circumstances.
So in Christ’s time, if the hour of prayer came and you were on the street, you would stop what you were doing and pray. Now the hypocrites somehow managed to always be found someplace VERY public when it came time to pray, and they made a great show of their prayers because their desire was to impress others with their holiness and piety.
A corollary of that, that still goes on today can be seen in Muslim countries where five times a day the Muezzin calls the faithful to pray, and wherever they are, they are supposed to prepare themselves and go through a ritual of kneeling and bowing to Mecca and reciting the same set prayers. A zealous Muslim really bows and touches his head to the ground and after a while they develop what is called a Zabiba or “Prayer Bump”. I recently read a book called “Captive in Iran” about two Christian women held in Evin Prison for their faith. They went before a particularly fanatical Muslim judge at one point and they made this observation:
He had a red mark on his forehead that devout Muslims get when they pray for long periods with a prayer stone pressed against their brow. However, I could tell that, like others we knew, He had heated the stone before using it. That made a red mark right away, displaying his devout status without all that time-consuming prayer.
But we probably assume this is not a problem that applies to Reformed Christians. After all, Reformed Christians don’t pray on the street corners or bow to Mecca, do they? Ah, but their prayers can also be offered for ears other than God’s. Have you ever been “prayed at”? I know that I have. I remember one instance where one Christian, who disliked another Christian in the room intensely, essentially spent ten minutes correcting his theological and personal faults in a prayer supposedly offered to God.
Our prayers can also be expressly designed to impress and please other people and there are no people who are as subject to that problem as pastors. Even the great Welsh pastor Martin Lloyd Jones confessed that for some reason it was easier to pray in the pulpit than in private. The danger is that you offer up your pulpit prayer to please your listeners. Spurgeon remarked that He had read the following in an American paper:
“The Rev. Dr. So-and-so prayed the finest prayer that was ever addressed to a Boston audience.” And then Spurgeon remarked, “I am afraid that there are some prayers of that sort, that are prayed to the congregation. That is not the kind of prayer that God loves.”
Many men pray for the benefit of those watching and listening, and truly as Jesus says, they have their reward, and have no right to expect those prayers to be answered by God. After all, those prayers weren’t addressed to Him in the first place and He knew that.
So instead, Jesus says we are to go into our secret place, where we can be alone with the Father. Does that mean we should stop praying in public? Well, no. The prayer meeting and congregational prayer are both very necessary. The apostolic church was constantly praying together in meetings and in worship (Acts 1:14, 3:1, 6:4, 12:5, 16:16, etc.). What Christ means is summed up by this remark of Spurgeon, “Forget that there is anybody present, forget that a human ear is listening to your accents; and let it be said of your prayer, “Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God.”
It is not the secrecy that is all-important, but the sincerity.
Wherever we are, we should be like the little child who climbs into her father’s lap and pours out her heart, all her concerns, praises, and desires and is totally oblivious in that moments of other people. She is just talking to her daddy and the idea that He wouldn’t answer never even occurs to her.
Having reminded His followers of who they are to pray to, Jesus reminds them of how they are to pray, and He says, “don’t think that you will be heard for your many words, your vain repetitions.” The Heathen prophets of Baal, who attempted to get Baal to answer with fire on Mt. Carmel, cried out from morning till noon shouting, “OH BAAL HEAR US.” To this day there are many who think that the repetition of prepared prayers over and over again is what forces God to hear and answer. In the Catholic School that I attended as a young boy, our being taught to pray consisted of being encouraged to pray the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer over and over. There was even a priest who would give a quarter to the boy who could say those prayers the fastest. I won the competition several times, but not because I was pious. I didn’t it because back then a quarter would buy you a game of Space Invaders at the arcade. That was not prayer, it was just vain repetition.
What kind of intimate relationship between two individuals could be based merely on one person constantly saying the same stream of words over and over and over again? That is not the way people address their earthly fathers so why would they think it is the proper way to address their heavenly Father?
Therefore, Jesus again tells us that we are to come to him in a spirit of trust, knowing that He knows what we have need of. Loving parents may know the needs of their children, but they still want their children to come to them and ask for what they have need of and tell them what they have on their hearts. As Christians, we need to remember that although our Heavenly Father knows what we are going to ask for, He has ordained prayer to be the means by which He changes things and that prayer is also a means that changes us, strengthens us, and grows us. As we speak to others we know them better, and as we speak to God we come to know and trust Him more completely.
In fact, a Christian who doesn’t want to talk to His heavenly father is an oxymoron. As JC Ryle simply put it, “this is the rule, prayerless equals graceless.”
And that brings us to the greatest and most important of the “keys to prayer” namely that prayer depends upon a relationship.
Let me try to explain what that means by using an allegory. On Father’s Day, I try to remember to call my father. When I do so, I expect the conversation will be happy and normal, after all, he’s my father. But if I called Someone else’s father to wish him a happy father’s day, the call would probably be rather awkward, wouldn’t it? But why should that be the cases? Aren’t they both fathers? Well Yes, but your father isn’t my father! I’m not his son and I can’t address him as my father if he’s not my father.
It has been my experience that the majority of people who attend church but don’t pray and say they have great difficulty doing so are usually struggling with the problem above. They cannot address God as their Father because that relationship doesn’t yet exist, and that is because they have not yet been adopted.
As Robert Hawker put it, “Strictly and properly speaking, there can be no prayer, where there is no acquaintance. And until the Child of GOD is brought into an acquaintance with GOD in CHRIST, however, He may offer a multitude of words, the heart is not interested, and consequently, there is no prayer. But when we have received the spirit of adoption, and the newborn child of GOD is brought forth into the spiritual life, instantly the cry of the soul is, Abba, Father!”
There is no way to come to the Father except by faith in His Son. 1 John 2:23 Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; He who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
Happily, prayer is also the beginning of the Christian life. Prayer is the first cry of the newborn Christian! We can call upon God to have mercy upon us by prayer, and we close and covenant with Him by prayer. If you have not done that yet, then it is time for you to truly begin to pray.