AUTHENTIC CHRISTIAN PRAYER
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do for they suppose that they will be heard by their many words.
So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
Chaplain Richard Halverson of the United States Senate told the story of a time when the subject of prayer in schools came up just before a Senator was to give a speech to several hundred men at a church's annual men's dinner. In response to the Senator's question about how many of the church men believed in prayer in the public schools, nearly every man present raised his hand in the affirmative.
Then the Senator asked, “How many of you pray daily with your own children in your home?” This time, only a few hands were raised.
Helen B. Poole tells this true story:
My 4-year-old daughter and I would always pray before she went to sleep. One night she volunteered to pray. She prayed and prayed and prayed—her voice getting softer and softer and softer, until only her lips were moving. Then she said, “Amen.”
“Honey,” I said, “I didn't hear a word you said.” She answered, “Mama, I wasn't talking to you.”
What is prayer? Prayer is a conversation between a Christian and his heavenly Father. Last Sunday Jesus showed us the right way to give to the Lord and those in need. Today Jesus is teaching us the authentic Christian prayer. As I said last week, if we pay heed to the teachings of Jesus in the religious practices of giving, prayer, and fasting our Christian lives are going to be more effective.
I. OSTENTATIOUS PRAYER VV. 5-6
Here too Jesus assumes that His disciples will pray, but He forbids the prayers of hypocrites. What Jesus says of hypocrites sounds fine at first: “They love to pray.” But unfortunately it is not prayer that they love or the God they are supposed to be praying to. No, they love themselves and the opportunity which public prayer gives them to parade themselves.
Of course, the discipline of regular prayer is good. Prayer had a prominent place in Jewish life and led to countless rabbinic decisions. All devout Jews prayed three times a day like Daniel (Daniel 6:10). In the Jewish synagogue worship of Jesus' day someone from the congregation might be asked to pray publicly, standing in front of the ark. And at certain times prayers could be offered in the streets. The location where the prayer was said was not the critical factor. In other words, Jesus is not condemning public prayer. Also the standing posture of prayer in itself is not significant. In the Bible there are several postures of prayer. For instance, some pray prostrate (Num. 16:22; Joshua 5:14;Rev. 11:16); kneeling (2 Chron. 6:13; Daniel 6:10; Luke 22:41; Acts 21:5); sitting (2 Sam 7:18; and standing (1 Sam. 1:26; Mark 11:25; Luke 18:11, 13). So in our present passage it is not the posture that is very crucial. What is critical is the motive behind the prayer: to be seen by men. Public prayer is very appropriate when practiced with right motives. Sometimes people complain why the Pastor do not include them in public prayer or ask them to pray. I wonder what the motives of such people are when they ask questions like that. Public orations should represent the overflow of a vibrant personal prayer life. Therefore, public prayer should not be used to gain applause, summarize a sermon, or communicate information to an audience but should reflect genuine conversation with God. Since the presence of other people can easily compromise the purity of this motive, prayer should always be as inconspicuous as possible. By inconspicuous I mean not readily noticeable. In other words, you do not pray to parade yourself that anyone who has heard you pray can easily know that it is you who is praying. The Pharisees were experts in this. They loved to be seen praying publicly because they would certainly get applause from the audience. They got it. They received their reward in full.
Religious pharisaism is far from dead. It is possible to attend church for the same wrongheaded reason, which took the Pharisee to the synagogue: not to worship God, but to gain for yourselves a reputation for piety. It is also possible to boast of your private devotions in the same way. What stands out is the perversity of all hypocritical practice. The giving of praise to God, like the giving of alms to men, is an authentic act in its own right. An ulterior motive destroys both. It degrades the service of God and men into a mean kind of self-service. How can you be praising God, when in reality you are concerned that men will praise you? There are certain people who want others to see that they are very holy. Therefore, public prayer becomes their platform to get attention. As Jesus saw through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He sees through such self-righteous acts of those who want to draw attention to themselves. Jesus calls such people hypocrites because they pray not to God but to an audience of people who revere them for their apparent holiness. Someone has said that when we pray we have one audience; that is God. God is our audience in prayer because He is the object and the source of our prayer.
Jesus teaches that we find the essence of prayer not in public but in private communication with God. A person who prays more in public than in private reveals that he/she is less interested in God's approval than in human praise. If you major in private prayer you don't mind if you are not asked to pray publicly. Some people major more in a reputation than true piety that God approves. Let me ask you a question, “What is the motive behind what you do for the cause of Christ, whether in giving, singing, praying, teaching, preaching, or fasting? Jesus says that to the hypocrites religion and charity become a public display. Jesus says the right way to pray is to go into your room and shut the door. You are to close the door against disturbance and distraction but also to shut out the prying eyes of men and to shut yourself in with God. When you do this only then can you obey the Lord's next command: Pray to your Father who is in secret. Those of you who rely only on public pastoral prayer you are missing so much from your heavenly Father. Your heavenly Father who is in the secret place is waiting to welcome you. Larnell Harris has a song entitled I miss My time with you. The essence of the song is that God is waiting for you to spend time with Him but you refused to show up and God says, “I miss My time with you.” How many of you neglect your prayer closet. Just as nothing destroys prayer like side-glances at human spectators, so nothing enriches prayer like the sense of the presence of God. For God sees not the outward appearances only but the heart, not the one who is praying only but also the motive for which he/she prays. The essence of Christian prayer is to seek God. A man or woman boy or girl who prays much in private will make short prayers in public. Behind all true prayer lies the conversation which God initiates: When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, O Lord I shall seek” (Psalm 27:8). We seek God in order to acknowledge Him as the person He is, God the Creator, God the Lord, God the Judge, God our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. We desire to meet Him in the secret place in order to bow down before Him in humble worship, love, and trust. Then Jesus went on, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
How many of you have a storeroom, or a private room, or a prayer closet where you meet with God on regular basis? I have said it before that if you have a spacious house you should reserve one room exclusively for prayer, where you have your Bible, devotional books, a chair and a table and spend time with the Lord. Try that and see the difference in your walk with the Lord. In future when we extend our church the first thing I would like to see is a prayer room where people can go and shut themselves in with God.
The hidden rewards of prayer are too many to enumerate. In the words of the Apostle Paul, when we cry “Abba, Father,” the Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are indeed God's children and we are granted a strong assurance of His fatherhood and love. He lifts the light of His face upon us and gives us His peace. He refreshes our soul, He satisfies our hunger, and quenches our thirst. We know we are no longer orphans, for the Father has adopted us; no longer prodigals for we have been forgiven; no longer alienated, for we have come home. In prayer we have fellowship with our heavenly Father.
As I said in the beginning, Jesus is not forbidding public prayer else we would have to give up going to church, family prayers, and prayer meetings. His reference here is to private prayer. Rather than becoming absorbed in the mechanics of secrecy, we need to remember that the purpose of Jesus' emphasis on “secret” prayer is to purify our motives in praying. As you are to give out of a genuine love for people, so you are to pray out of a genuine love for God. You must never use either of these religious practices as a cloak for self-love.
II. REPETITIVE PRAYER VV. 7-8
Repeating the same words over and over (babbling) like magical incantation will not ensure that God hears these prayers. The pagans (or Gentiles) focused on how they delivered their prayers, repeating the right words in the right order. They often repeated the names of their gods as a way to get a blessing (as in Acts 19:34). Jesus is not condemning prayer any more than He was condemning giving in 6:1-4. In fact Jesus encouraged persistent prayer (Luke 18:1-8) and soon would give a pattern for prayer (6:9-13). Rather, Jesus is condemning the shallow repetition of words by those who do not have a personal relationship with the Father. Often many people pray with their minds on hold and their mouths on automatic. But that is not what prayer is. In prayer you are not doing battle with a reluctant God who should be worn out in order to give you what you want. In prayer you are talking to your Father who knows your needs before you even ask Him. Jesus is saying that it is not the repetition and the length of your prayer that makes it effective. What makes Christian prayer authentic and effective is your relationship to the Father. In prayer believers do not pray to idols of wood or stone with incessant babbling. You pray to the One living and true God who knows what you need before you utter a word. The fact that God knows what you need should not be used as an excuse not to pray on consistent basis. But at the same time you should not spend too much time telling God your needs because He already knows. God doesn't need our prayers but He wants our prayers and knows that we need them. God knows your needs, but He also has chosen to grant some requests only when His people pray (James 4:2).
Christian prayer is different than the prayers of pagans and other religious practitioners. Prayer is not some battering ram by which you gain entrance into God's treasury. It is a means by which you receive that which God already longs to give you. As a father knows the need of his family, yet teaches them to ask in confidence and trust, so does God treat His children.
So when you pray in a rote, mechanical way—only saying memorized words void of meaning you violate Jesus' command in Matthew 6:7. Insincere, empty words, however beautifully stated, do not constitute true praying. Many so-called prayers are only verbal attempts to manipulate God, impress others, or to gratify your own egos and thus are not prayers at all but are in fact pagan utterances! Leonard Ravenhill, a prayer warrior and author of many books on prayer said, “The self-sufficient do not pray, the self-satisfied will not pray, the self-righteous cannot pray. No man is greater than his prayer life.”
It is so sad that many Christians do more of everything than of praying. The reason why many Christians are ineffective and spiritually malnourished is due to lack of consistent prayer. Prayer is God's appointed way for obtaining things. It was E. M. Bounds who said, “The prayers of God's saints are the capital stock in heaven by which Christ carries on His great work upon the earth.”
Authentic prayer introduces those who practice it into a world of privilege, and brings the strength and wealth of heaven down to the aid of finite men/women. I call these series on the Sermon on the Mount, “Back to the Basics.” It is hard time we pay heed to Jesus' teaching on prayer and other moral issues and religious practices, if our Christian lives are to become effective and contagious.
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