How Not to Pray

Matthew 6:5-8
Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer once told a story about prayer. It seems that a certain minister was in the habit of profound prayers, oftentimes using words that the people didn’t know. This went on week after week, to the dismay and frustration of the congregation. At last, a small Scottish woman in the choir ventured to take the matter in hand. On a given Sunday, as the minister was waxing his most eloquently verbose, the little woman reached across the curtain separating the choir from the pulpit. Taking a firm grasp on the frock tail of the minister, she gave it a yank, and was heard to whisper, “Jes’ call Him Fether, and ask ‘im for somethin’.” Now, that is a story about a minister. What about us? Do we do certain things to try to make sure that our prayers are heard? I think we do. But let’s look at our passage to see what Jesus tells us. What Jesus tells us here is how not to pray.

There are two dangers in prayer about which Jesus tells us. The first danger is hypocrisy: doing prayer so that other people will notice how pious we are. This is given to us in verses 5-6. The second danger Jesus tells us to avoid is meaningless jabbering. Let us examines these one by one.

First of all, we must notice that we are now in the second of three examples. Jesus has told us in verse one of this chapter that we are not to practice our righteousness before other men in order to be seen by them. Then Jesus gives three examples of how our righteousness should be private: alms, prayer, and fasting. We are going to spend some time on prayer, at least several weeks.

Well, what is this hypocrisy about which Jesus warns us? Hypocrites love to be noticed in their piety. I just saw a picture the other day of Hilary Clinton praying in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There were all sorts of cameras there taking pictures of her. My guess is that she was doing anything but praying to the Lord God. What she was doing was sheer politics. She everyone to see that she was praying. In the first century, hypocrisy was down to a fine art, as it is today. What they would do is time their business just right, so that when the time came for the scheduled prayers of the day, they would just happen to be in a great spot to be noticed by just about as many people as possible. They were ostentatious in their display of piety. But they were not praying to God. Instead, they were praying to other people. Another story: a man went to a church in Boston, and heard a very erudite preacher pray in his congregation. It was a very long-winded prayer that did not take people up to the throne of grace, as a pastoral prayer should, but rather tried to impress the people with his knowledge. The man remarked, “That was the best prayer I ever heard offerred to a church in Boston.” Prayer needs to be directed solely to God, not to anyone else.

That is why Jesus says that they have received their reward. Again, we have that word that means “paid in full.” There is no further payment to be expected. Furthermore, what Jesus says here implies that it wasn’t really prayer at all, in fact. Prayer is by definition directed to God, not to people. That is why Jesus tells us what the remedy is for hypocritical prayer: it is to engage in prayer in a place where we cannot possibly be seen by anyone. And, of course, it does no good for us to somehow let someone know that we have to go pray now. We can sometimes say, “Last night while I was praying,” or “The Lord showed me while I was praying.” These expressions can often be used as subtle hints that we are quite holy and pious. One is reminded of the story of Pharisee and the tax-collector. The Pharisee stands upright in the middle of the Temple area, and publicly thanks God that he is not like this tax-collector. But the tax-collector was the one unable to face God. He simply beat his breast and called to God to have mercy on him. Jesus tells us that it was the tax-collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified.

Now, it is important to recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. If He was, then the early disciples surely misunderstood Him badly when they prayed together in their meetings in church. Jesus is talking about our private prayers, those prayers that should only exist between God and yourself. He is not talking about public worship, and so we cannot read His statements here as condemning public prayer.

Well, what kind of place does Jesus recommend? He recommends the most private place you can find. In those days, the only real privacy you could have among other people was in a private store-room that could be locked. That is the room Jesus is talking about here. You see, Jews of those days thought that the only acceptable place to pray was the Temple. So, in one sentence, Jesus tells us that the most Holy place in which we can pray, is the room most likely viewed as the least holy place. We might think this way today about the church. “I can only really pray in church, because it is more solemn there.” The fact is that you can pray anywhere. But if you are going to pray when other people are around, and there occasions when we must do so, then we should pray in our hearts. Now, what about prayer meetings? Is Jesus condemning those? Well, no, He is not. But He would condemn prayer meetings where people pray to other people rather than to God. If you are in a prayer meeting, or are in a place where other people are going to pray, say, family night, or Ladies’ Aid, then beware lest your prayers turn into a performance for the other people there. What you must do instead is lift the people to the very throne room of God. You are not on display for other people, but are rather to be talking with God. For that is the most basic definition of prayer: talking with God. God talks to us in Scripture. We talk to God in prayer. Both are necessary, and both complement the other.

This is a good segue into the second danger that Jesus warns us about: long-windedness. We’ve all probably experienced some time in our lives, someone praying, and we just wish that person would shut up. Probably some of you have thought that about some of the pastoral prayers that I have offered! Well, long-windedness is not very acceptable to people. What makes us think it is more acceptable to God? For it is often the case that the very same people who would object to hearing long-windedness in others will do the very same thing themselves! What does Jesus mean here?

Well, we must understand the background to Jesus’ statement. Pagans of that time were very fond of long prayers. They would call on every deity they knew (for most of them were polytheists), and after a lengthy recitation of gods’ names (along with all the various attributes they thought the gods had), then, and only then, would they start actually talking to the gods. They thought that you had to address God in a very particular way, or that god would be offended. In fact, they would often include a catch-all phrase at the end of the gods’ names, lest they had forgotten one. What they would then do is to pile up meaningless phrase after meaningless phrase, thinking that the gods would only hear you if they really thought you were sincere because of your long-windedness. This is sometimes true in the Roman Catholic tradition, where they will say the Hail Mary and the Our Father about 100 times, thinking that God will hear them only after they have said that many times.

But what about ourselves? It is easy to point to something like that and say that it doesn’t affect us. Do we use an exalted style of language to talk to God, thinking that God will only listen to us if we use King James English? I’m not saying that it is wrong to use such language. However, we must ask ourselves this question: why do we do that? Do we do it out of true reverence? Or do we do it only when other people are around, so that they will think that we are reverent and pious?

How often do we think about what we say when we pray the Lord’s Prayer? Is it just another meaningless repetition of the Lord’s Prayer? Just mouthing the words? Or do we mean it every time we say it? Do we understand it? That is one reason why we are (Lord-willing) going to go rather slowly through the Lord’s Prayer. It is so familiar, that we don’t listen to it anymore, oftentimes. We need to hear the Lord’s Prayer afresh, or we will wind up turning the Lord’s Prayer into the very thing that Jesus here condemns: meaningless words!

Now, let’s clarify what Jesus is NOT saying. He is not saying that repetition is necessarily bad. Jesus himself did it in the High Priestly Prayer in John 17, where He stresses the unity between Father, Son, and church very many times. Jesus is also not condemning length in prayers, for He Himself would often pray all night. He certainly did the night He was arrested, when He prayed in Gethsemane.

Well then, what is Jesus condemning? He condemns meaningless repetition. Repetition done so that God will hear better. Why is this? Why are we not to meaninglessly repeat things in our prayer? Jesus gives us the reason in verse 8: God already knows what we need before we even ask Him. You might remember the parable of the unjust judge. There, the woman kept on coming back and coming back to the judge, demanding justice from him, until finally the judge gave in, simply to get this old woman off his hands. Jesus is there arguing that if such persistance is required with an unjust judge, then how much more will God hear us, when He is not unjust, and hurries to fulfill His children’s requests? We should not give up, simply because God seems slow to us. God’s time runs differently from ours, much like Narnia time runs differently from England time, in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. God calls all times soon. And so we should not be impatient in our prayers, thinking that God does not hear. One is reminded of the story of the prophets of Baal versus Elijah the prophet. Those Baal prophets cried out from morning to night on the name of their god, who did not answer. The silence was deafening. Elijah makes one simple, short, direct, and fervent prayer to God, and does God ever answer him! Martin Luther said that our prayers should be “brief, frequent, and intense.” We pray when we need to pray, which is far more often than we normally pray.

This brings up another issue in regards to prayer: how often should we pray? If we are not praying morning, noon, and night, then are we inferior Christians? That is rather a difficult question. On the one hand, it is certainly true that our whole lives should be one long prayer to God. On the other hand, we often use such a thought as an excuse not really to pray at all. There should definitely be set times when we come before our Heavenly Father in prayer. Morning is probably the best time, since we are not immediately thinking about the events of the day, like we are at night. On the other hand, night-time is the best time for talking with God about the events of the day. Sometimes we also need prayer in the middle of the day, so that God would help us to accomplish the task at hand. Our lives are to be characterized by prayer. That is what Paul means when he says, “Pray without ceasing.” He does not mean that we are only to pray, and do nothing besides. But it does mean that we are to be characterized by prayer.

We should remember in all this that we cannot come to the throne of grace without a Mediator. Jesus is here telling us that we need Him as a Mediator. We don’t use the opinion of other people as a Mediator, which is what hypocrites do. Nor do we use many words as our Mediator. No, we simply have Christ as our Mediator. He is our High Priest in the heavens, listening to our prayers, and pleading for us, on our behalf, to the Father. Do you want to know if God hears your prayers? Do you have a Mediator? The answer to that question answers the other question. If you have Jesus as a Mediator, then God hears your prayers. That is an absolute promise in Scripture. If you do not have Jesus, then it doesn’t matter how many people see you pray, and it doesn’t matter how long you pray, or how many meaningless phrases you pile up, God will not hear your prayer.

A final word on the efficacy of prayer. What does it accomplish? James tells us that the prayer of a righteous man avails much. That is, it is effectual. We like to think sometimes that the only thing it changes is us. That is true. God does not change because of our prayers. However, there is a danger in thinking that way. We can start to think that because prayer doesn’t change God, that therefore God doesn’t care about our prayers, and then we are tempted to give it up altogether. What we must know is that God uses our prayers to accomplish His purposes. Yes, even our weak, unfaithful, lapsed prayers are tools God uses to accomplish His will. That is an amazing idea, isn’t it? Why should God use me, a sinner? And yet, He does. So, pray to the Father. “Call ‘im Fether, and ask ‘im for somethin’.” He is a loving Father, who desires to give all good gifts to His children.

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