THE PRAYER GOD
Some time ago a missionary told me of a letter he received from a little girl whose Sunday School class was writing to foreign missionaries as a class project. Evidently their teacher had told them that real live missionaries were very busy and might be unable to answer their letters, for the one he received said simply:
Dear Rev. Smith:
We are praying for you. We are not expecting an answer.
Without realizing it that little girl summed up the prayer life of many Christians: we are praying; we are not expecting an answer. The truth is, most of us aren’t surprised when our prayers aren’t answered – and we’re often amazed when they are. But the opposite ought to be true. God intended that our prayers be answered. While the Bible admits the fact of unanswered prayer, it never assumes it. Answered prayer should be the rule, not the exception. The Bible knows nothing of prayer for “prayer’s sake.” When prayer goes unanswered something is wrong.
There is no substitute for effective praying. To fail here is to fail everywhere. Matthew Henry said, “When God intends to bless His people the first thing He does is set them a-praying.” And John Wesley declared: “God does nothing but by prayer, and everything with it.” This then is our greatest need. The vault of God’s blessings will remain locked against us until we learn to use the key of prayer.
It is no small wonder, then, that the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Mark it well: prayer does not come naturally or effortlessly. It must be learned. And it is good news to know that we have the greatest of all Teachers and His desire to teach surpasses by far our desire to learn.
In learning to pray, two problems must be mastered: how to pray and for what to pray. Every problem we encounter in prayer will revolve around these two questions. And both are answered by Jesus in the passage before us. The passage is, of course, part of the Sermon on the Mount. Here He gives His disciples the spiritual conditions and the specific content of the prayer God always answers. From these verses emerge four ingredients essential in answered prayer.
Before examining these four requirements, I think it will help to view the structure of the passage and see it as a whole.
Here is the Master Teacher at work. First, He tells us how NOT to pray, then gives the reason for not praying that way, and finally tells us HOW to pray. The passage falls into two easily identifiable parts.
I. DON’T PRAY LIKE THE HYPOCRITES. (Verses 5,6)
1. The negative teaching: Don’t pray to be seen of men. (Verse 5a)
2. The reason: You have your reward. (Verse 5b)
3. The positive teaching: Pray in secret to the Father Who is in secret. (Verse 6)
II. DON’T PRAY LIKE THE HEATHEN. (Verses 7-13)
1. The negative teaching: Don’t pray with vain repetition, thinking you will be heard because of much speaking. (Verse 7)
2. The reason: Your Father knows what you need before you ask. (Verse 8)
3. The positive teaching: “After this manner, pray.” (Verses 9-13)
Verse 6 is the cure for the wrong praying of verse 5.
Verses 9-13 are the cure for the wrong praying of verse 8.
Jesus warns us of the two most common dangers in prayer – praying like a hypocrite and praying like a heathen.
The hypocrite prays with the wrong motive. The heathen prays in the wrong manner.
The hypocrite perverts the purpose of prayer. The heather misunderstands the nature of prayer.
The hypocrite prays to impress people. The heathen prays to impress God.
The hypocrite’s mistake is made deliberately. The heathen’s mistake is made ignorantly.
Something of the hypocrite and the heathen is in all of us. There is the temptation to use prayer as a means of impressing others, calling attention to ourselves – that’s the hypocrite in us. There is also the tendency to rush into prayer without thought or preparation, thinking God will be persuaded by long and loud praying – that’s the heathen in us. These two errors choke the life from true prayer and must be avoided. And Jesus tells us how in these verses.
Now let’s turn our attention to the four ingredients of the prayer God always answers.
I. We Must Pray With Sincerity.
“And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” (Verse 5). The first prerequisite of prayer is complete sincerity. What Jesus condemns here is not praying in public, but praying “to be seen of men.”
Here is a staggering revelation. The highest and holiest act in which men can engage is the act of prayer. Surely, in the inner sanctum of the prayer room a man is safe from sin. But not even there do we escape sin’s penetrating and perverting power. Our holiest moments can become the occasion for the greatest of sins. Sin intrudes into the holiest of all places and wipes its muddy feet arrogantly on the floor of the throne room. I heard Stephen Olford say once that his greatest temptations came to him while he was praying.
Jesus introduced this section of the Sermon on the Mount with a warning. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Our loftiest acts are often inspired by the lowest of motives. “Vanity,” said Napoleon, “was the cause of the revolution. Liberty was only the pretext.”
Prayer is fragile and must be handled with care. It is the ultimate test of our real spiritual condition. In the place of prayer we discover the truth about ourselves.
When does our praying become that of the hypocrite? Prayer is hypocritical when we make it a spiritual status symbol. Prayer is hypocritical when we use it to impress others with our spirituality. Public praying, especially, is susceptible to this temptation. Not long ago I was speaking at a conference where the chairman was noted for his eloquent public prayers. People constantly carried on about the beauty of his prayers – in the presence of the man himself. Well, it was too much for any mortal to take, When he stood to pray (which was often) he affected an unnatural, sonorous pulpit voice and piled up mountains of ostentatious phrases. Too often prayer had become a stage performance. When we pray in such a way as to draw attention to ourselves, we are in fact praying to men rather than to God, asking for their applause rather than for His blessing.
Even our private prayers can be affected with this malady. Of all our Christian activities none is as vulnerable to vain display as is prayer. I believe most Christians have an inferiority complex where their prayer life is concerned and hold in awesome reverence those who seem to have learned the secret of real payer. It’s an easy temptation, therefore, to bid for respect by calling attention to the long hours we spend in prayer. In other words, it would be mighty hard to spend the whole night in prayer and not tell someone about it.
At no time must we be more completely sincere and totally honest than when we come to God in prayer. God welcomes us at His throne of grace when we come openly and honestly, without pretense or sham – that is, when we come with a pure motive.
Ah, but there is the rub. Nothing is as difficult to subdue as an impure motive. We are our own worst enemy. Christ’s command is so near to impossible we may be discouraged from praying at all. How can we achieve this kind of sincerity in prayer?
The answer lies in the next verse. “But you, when you pray, GO INTO YOUR ROOM, AND WHEN YOU HAVE SHUT YOUR DOOR, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Verse 6). This means that:
II. We Must Pray in Secrecy.
“The secret of religion is religion in secret.” To guard against praying to be seen of men, Jesus tells us to pray where only God can see us – in secret. By this Jesus does not mean that we are never to pray in public; the secrecy of which He spoke is more than physical, although physical secrecy is important and was practiced by our Lord.
As a matter of fact, our public praying should be backed up by our private praying. If we pray only in public, we are hypocrites. When there exists no faithful private payer life our public prayers are nothing but a performance.
The secret praying that Jesus is speaking of can be done in public. This is primarily a mental and spiritual secrecy. The key lies in the phrase “pray to your Father.” Sometimes we are guilty in public prayers of praying to the listeners rather than to God. Have you ever used your family prayers as a means of “preaching to the family” instead of praying to the Father? You know what I mean, something like this: “Dear Lord, please help Johnny to see that I don’t have time to take him to the zoo tomorrow, and help Sally to pick up her dirty clothes and put them in the laundry basket, and help Bill to get the lawn mowed tomorrow because we’re having company over the weekend…” Sound familiar?
Secret praying is “praying to the Father.” This means that we concentrate on His presence. Our attention is focused on Him, His will, His glory. We are more conscious of His presence than we are of the presence of others. Having shut the world out we shut ourselves in with Him. I have heard a few men who when they prayed, even in a crowded room, prayed as if there were no one else in the universe besides them and the Father.
Secret praying also means that we are content with His praise. Nothing will satisfy the hypocrite but the praise of men. They have their reward. But to pray in secret means we covet the reward that only He can give. Nothing but His approval, His praise will satisfy. This kind of man will have no trouble praying sincerely in public or in private.
III. We Must Pray With Simplicity.
In verses 7 and 8, Jesus gives us the second pitfall to be avoided in prayer – praying like the heathen: “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him.”
The hypocrites’ sin was praying with the wrong motive – to impress men. The heathen’s mistake was praying in the wrong manner – to impress God. Notice that it is not repetition that Jesus condemns, but meaningless repetition. The Greek word is difficult to translate into English but it carries the idea of babbling or rambling on and on in a torrent of words. “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans” is the New International Version rendering.
The heathen believed their gods were impressed by the amount of time and words spent in making prayers. To them prayer was a matter of convincing the gods they were worthy of the blessing sought. In short, prayer was talking God into giving them what they wanted.
It is amazing how pagan we often are in our praying. Listen carefully to yourself the next time you pray. You may find that much of your praying is an attempt to talk God into seeing things your way. I am afraid that much of my own praying at times has been nothing more than trying to get God to believe in me or to cooperate with me in some venture. It is as though we had to pry open the hand of a tight-fisted God. When we believe that if we show God our sincerity and devotion by how much and how long we pray He will be kindly disposed toward us and give us what we ask, we are praying like pagans.
Don’t pray like that, Jesus said. Why not? “For your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him.” The heathen’s faulty praying was the result of a false conception of God. Their concept of God was wrong, so their praying was wrong. We don’t have that kind of God, Jesus was saying, so we are not to pray that way.
Living the Christian life is simply responding to the character of God. “But like the Holy One who called you; be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written. ‘YOU SHALL BE HOLY FOR I AM HOLY’” (1 Peter 1:15-16)
“We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48).
Augustine prayed, “Grant me, Lord to know and understand which is first, to call on Thee or to praise Thee. And again, to know Thee or to call on Thee. For who can call on Thee, not knowing Thee? For he that knoweth Thee not may call on Thee as other than Thou art.” (Author’s emphasis)
In prayer the chief thing is knowing to what kind of God we are praying. “Your Father” is how Jesus describes Him. We are to pray with the simplicity of a child whose father knows his every need.
Some have taken this statement to imply that we need not ask. If, they reason, God already knows what we need, why bother to ask? If He knows we need it and wants us to have it, we’ll get it. According to one well-known preacher, this business of retreating to a prayer closet and petitioning God for things is nothing but “religious gymnastics.” The only thing wrong with that view is, it’s wrong. And unscriptural.
That Jesus did not mean we should not ask for things is obvious from the fact that in the following verses (the model prayer), He tells us to pray specifically for certain things. And one of the petitions concerns daily bread, which the Father surely knows we need.
Rather than discouraging us from asking, these words are meant to encourage us to pray with confidence. What a difference it makes in my praying when I know I don’t have to convince God I need that for which I am asking. I remember occasions when my children would come to me wanting something, and the first thing they would do was try to convince me they needed it. Talk about meaningless repetition! But you should have seen the relief in their face when I interrupted their pleadings to tell them I already knew they needed it. “Prayer,” said Richard Trench, “is not overcoming God’s reluctance, it is laying hold of God’s willingness.”
Repetition in prayer is not always meaningless. In the two parables of Jesus on payer (Luke 11:5-9; 18:1-8) the emphasis is on persistent repetition. And Jesus Himself repeated His petition when He prayed in Gethsemane. Repetition caused by a burdened heart is not meaningless. There are times when our prayer burden is so intense that we can’t help but cry out repeatedly to our Heavenly Father.
IV. We Should Pray Specifically.
How is this simplicity in prayer accomplished? Jesus tells us in the next verse: “Pray, then, in this way” (Verse 9). Having told us the wrong way to pray, He now tells us the right way. Simple praying is accomplished by specific praying. And those specifics are laid down in the Model Prayer.
The purpose of Jesus was not to give a set prayer to be ritually recited over and over – that would contradict what He just said about meaningless repetition – but to give us an example to follow when we pray. This is a pattern, a blueprint. It covers everything that a man could ask of God. Every conceivable need we will ever encounter is dealt with in this pattern prayer. When we pray, regardless of the length of our prayer, we are simply expanding the principles found here. We are adding flesh to the skeleton. This is the way to pray, said Jesus. Every prayer built according to these specifications will be answered.
Two facts need to be noted. One, prayer is an act, not an attitude. While we are to live in an attitude of prayer, prayer is more than an attitude. It is not merely being aware that we have all things in Christ. “When Jesus ceased praying,” writes Luke (11:1). For Jesus, prayer was an act with a beginning and an ending. “When you pray, SAY” (Luke 11:2 Emphasis added).
Two, prayer is asking. Prayer is petition, not praise. Our private worship should, of course, include praise, and during times of prayer we should praise God, but prayer and praise, strictly speaking, are not the same thing. Prayer is basically petition.
I heard a conference speaker make the statement that as we mature in payer praise will replace petition. He went so far as to suggest that if we were still occupied with making petitions we were carnal. If that be true then Jesus was carnal, for a close study of His prayer life shows that His prayers were almost totally petitions – and petitions for Himself. The prayers of Paul were petitionary. We are admonished by both Jesus and Paul to ask and keep on asking.
The Model Prayer is one hundred percent petition. Even the phrase, “Hallowed be Thy Name,” is petition, not praise. Jesus did not say, “When you pray, Hallow the name of God.” He said, “When you pray, say, “Thy name be hallowed.” That is a petition, asking that God cause His name to be revered.
The prayer is made up of six petitions, put in the form of commands. In each instance we are asking God to do something specific. The prayer is in two parts, with three petitions in each part. Space will permit only a brief examination of these parts.
The first part of the prayer deals with The Glory of The Father.
The prayer God answers always gives priority to the Father’s glory, putting His interests before our own. This implies an emptying of self and an occupation with the things of God. Only after we have thus forgotten our self can we think of our self.
1. We are to pray that the name of God will be revered. “Hallowed be thy name.”
2. We are to pray that the rule of God be established. “Thy kingdom come.”
3. We are to pray that the will of God be done. “Thy will be done.”
The second part of the prayer deals with the good of His children, both physically and spiritually.
1. We are to pray for provision. “Give us this day our daily bread.”
2. We are to pray for pardon. “Forgive us our debts.”
3. We are to pray for protection. “Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
At the beginning of the Model Prayer is a phrase that casts its shadow over the entire prayer, setting the stage for its petitions and forming the foundation of all true prayer – “Our Father.” In a sense these two words sum up the whole prayer.
“Our Father.” Here is the requirement of all prayer. Prayer is a family matter and only those who can truly say, “Our Father” can pray.
“Our Father.” Here is our right to pray. We are not beggars cowering at the back door pleading for a handout; we are children seated at the Father’s table. J.D. Jones, a great English preacher of an earlier generation, tells the story of a Roman Emperor who was entering Rome in triumph after a victorious battle. Suddenly a little child darted through the ranks of the soldiers who lined the road and headed for the gorgeous carriage in which the emperor was seated. One of the soldiers grabbed him, and trying to restrain the boy, said, “That is the Emperor!”
“Your Emperor,” said the child, “but my father!”
What right do we have to expect that a thrice holy God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of the Universe will hear our prayer and grant our petition?
When you pray, say, “Our Father.”
©Ron Dunn, LifeStyle Ministries, 2002