Life Upside Down
Proper Prayer 2
Last week we began looking at Jesus’ instruction on prayer found in His Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 6:5-8. We spent our entire time on the first four words of verse five; “And when you pray.” These four words are packed full of meaning and application. We found that these words indicate some convicting concepts about the activity of prayer of prayer in our lives.
Activity of Prayer (v. 5a)
The very grammar and the way this phrase is constructed tells us that Jesus expected prayer to be taking place. He did not say, “if you pray,” He said, “when you pray.” Jesus had an expectation of the activity of prayer among those who listened to Him. Also, the tense of the words used here indicate that this activity is not just a once in a while activity, but it is repeated to the point of being a very part of the believer’s life. Thus, prayer is a repeated action.
Though not indicated in this phrase, we also found through other passages of Scripture that the activity of prayer is a pleasing aroma to God. Our understanding of the Golden Altar of Incense and its representation of the prayers of the saints, show us a beautiful picture of the pleasure our prayers bring to God’s heart. Our prayers are like a sweet aroma to the nostrils of God bringing joy and pleasure to our God.
And we concluded last week that if the only thing that happens when we pray is that God is pleased, then that in and of itself should move us to be a praying people. But the beauty of prayer is that this is not the only thing that happens when we pray. We want to continue looking at the concept of prayer today as we continue our study of proper prayer. Let’s read our passage again.
5 "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 "And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Motivation of Prayer (vv. 5b-6)
You know as well as I do that the motivation is just as important as why we do something. Why do we do what we do? This is so evident to others in our lives. You can tell if someone is doing something because they have to do it, or feel obligated to do it, or if they are doing it because they either love what they are doing, or love the person they are doing it for.
Nothing pleases a parent more than when a child does something for them just because they love them and want to do something special. But it is always difficult for a parent when they think they are forcing their children to do something that they would want their children to do out of love for them.
I am sure it is no different for God. God is pleased when we express our love for Him through an activity of prayer. But I am pretty sure He is disheartened to see believers coming to Him because they feel they have to, after all, Jesus does indicate an expectation of prayer. When prayer becomes ritualistic, something is lost in translation between our heart and God’s heart. In fact, Jesus uses a strong word for this, He calls them hypocrites. Why hypocrites? A hypocrite is an actor. A hypocrite is someone who acts like someone they are not in order to have the reward of personal recognition.
~ Reward of Personal Recognition (v. 5b)
You must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
Ouch, that stings a bit doesn’t it? In many churches we find an understanding of righteousness being defined by the rituals and duties that people perform. Now please understand something, just because we can recognize it in other churches does not mean we don’t have a problem with it ourselves. We need to be wary of this happening to us!
Jesus has often addressed the Scribes and Pharisees activities as hypocritical. They thought they were being righteous because of their obedience to their understanding of God’s Law. Over and over Jesus has taken the things that the Scribes and Pharisees have taught concerning holiness and He has turned it upside down in showing how their obedience was distorted because it did not come for a heart of love for God. It came for a heart of being seen as holy by other people.
As Jesus addresses prayer here, it is no different than some of the other activities He has addressed. Some people would pray simply to be seen by others as holy. Jesus says, they have their reward. What reward is that? Well, being seen by others as holy. But God knows their heart and there will be no reward from Him. How do I know that? Remember a couple of months ago when we began chapter 6 what verse 1 said? Look at it again.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
The idea is simply this. If the only time you pray is when you are in a prayer meeting, at a church service, a restaurant, some public rally against sin, or some other public venue, and never pray in private, then you should ask yourself why you pray at all. Is it only to be seen as a holy and righteous person? Listen, it is certainly not wrong for you to be seen praying in public venues, in fact it is encouraging to others when you do. But just as Jesus knows the hearts of those He called hypocrites, He knows our hearts as well. If your prayer life is only for personal recognition, well, Jesus says we have our reward.
Thankfully He doesn’t leave His comment there, does He? Verse 6 talks about the reward of genuine communion with the Father.
~ Reward of Communion with the Father (v. 6)
6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus tells the crowd on the hillside that day, don’t get into the trap of ritual prayers in public just to be seen by others, rather, be a person of prayer in private also. Jesus is not saying that we should not pray openly and publicly, but if prayer is not a part of our lives even in secret, then where is our heart in praying in public. You may have been a part of prayer movements against abortion, a part of crowds in front of the capital building, prayed in front of certain business establishments that market porn and sex. But if you don’t pray in private, why did you pray publicly at those venues? That’s the question Jesus is addressing here. He goes directly to the heart of the matter. Why do you pray?
He tells us that there is reward for praying in secret that is much different from those who only pray publicly. What is the reward? Simply put, a loving communion with the Father. The only reason a person prays in private is because of their love for the heavenly Father. No personal recognition from others. Only sweet communion with God. Private prayer has a powerful impact in our lives. I guarantee that if you spend time in private, reading the Bible, and praying, God will reward you. You might be thinking, well, if that’s the case I will never pray in public again, so don’t ask me to Pastor Mike.
We have some in our congregation that struggle to pray publicly for many reasons. Many of you have shared with Carrie and me about that. Some are not sure what to say, some say they might get emotional, others don’t think they pray as good as someone else prays, or whatever the reason. But let me ask you something. Not praying in public because of the fear of what others might think of your prayers, isn’t that still a personal recognition issue? I think it could be. So personal recognition doesn’t just apply to those who pray in public, it can also apply to those who do not want to pray in public. They somehow fear a negative personal recognition.
So, for those who want to use this as an excuse to not pray in a group, not praying can have the same motivation as praying. Jesus prayed in public (John 11:41,42); the apostles prayed in public (Acts 3:1; 21:5); and the early church held prayer meetings (Acts 12:12). So clearly, public prayer is not the problem, it is the heart’s motivation for prayer.
Personally, I love hearing people pray. Honestly! It encourages me and helps me to have a fuller sense how to come before God. When I hear men on Wednesday afternoon at our prayer time, pouring out their heart before God, it is moving for me. I come away with a fuller more enriched understanding of my relationship with God and I have often thanked God for those men that take time to come out to pray.
When men voluntarily open up in prayer at the Men’s Breakfast, it is like my soul is taken to a new height. Is it because these men have such a powerful way of expressing themselves in prayer? Absolutely not. It is ordinary men talking to God about what is on their heart. Often stumbling over their words because they are unsure how to express what they mean. But to me, that is powerful and I have no doubt that it moves the heart of God.
Are any of them praying hypocritically? I don’t know! But what I do know is that God knows their heart, and my heart was just encouraged by their public prayer. What Jesus is addressing here is not whether to pray in public or not, that’s not the issue, but what is your heart’s motivation for praying? That is why Jesus uses the word hypocrite, pretending to be something you are not. Do you also pray in secret as well as in public? Do you not pray in public because you fear a negative public recognition?
Remember, I told you last week that prayer is so simple because it is just our heart talking to God. But it becomes very complex when our pride and self-image enter the equation. This is simply a matter of the heart. What is your motivation for praying? Next Jesus begins addressing the content of prayer.
Content of Prayer (vv. 7-8)
You might be saying to yourself, “Aha, what I say does matter, that is why I don’t pray in public.” Don’t jump to that conclusion just yet. Let’s look at what Jesus says about the content of our prayer in verses 7 and 8.
"And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him
~ Empty Phrases (v. 7)
The first thing Jesus addresses is what He calls empty phrases. Gentiles is a word that refers to anyone outside of Judaism. Sometimes it is translated pagan or heathens. But the idea here is that there are those who think the continual use of repeated phrases will cause God to listen to them. This can get into some interesting conversations about what phrases Jesus means here, but I think the key is the word “empty” accompanied with being “heaped up.”
There are certain religions and even some Christian denominations that have repeated prayers. When the people are called together for prayers, there are specific words that are said and repeated each time they come together. Some religions even have repeated calls to prayer at specific times during the day. When Jesus refers to Gentiles and many repeated empty phrases and the heaping up of many words, He is not necessarily saying don’t repeat the same prayer over and over, but repeating a prayer that is empty or meaningless to you should be avoided.
Some religions prescribe repeating a certain prayer over and over for penance for a sin they have committed. Some religions require that the Lord’s Prayer be repeated at each service. I believe the idea that Jesus is addressing is the rote repetition of a prayer that has no meaning to the individual who prays its and it is empty because there is nothing about the heart involved with the words that are being said. We might say, “whew, I am glad we don’t do that.” But remember, it is again the heart of the matter. When our phrases and words become empty, it simply means they no longer mean anything to us.
Have you ever found yourself repeating a prayer at the dinner table and realize that you just said something that you have said many times before, but it came out of your mouth without even thinking about what was said? Now I am not saying that you need to concoct something different to say every time you pray for a meal, but do the words coming from our mouth mean something to us? Even if they are repeated words from previous prayers, do they come from our heart?
When we get into a ritual of saying the same words that come from our mouth with no meaning from our heart, and just keep saying it thinking we are somehow being heard, we are gravely mistaken. You wouldn’t talk to you spouse or best friend that way, why on earth would you talk to God that way. The old saying is true, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray repeated for something for somebody, but pray from the heart about them.
It is said of George Mueller of England that he began to pray for the salvation of 5 personal friends and that after 5 years, one of them came to Christ. After 10 years, two more came to Christ. After 25 years the 4th man came to Christ. George Mueller prayed for the salvation of the 5th man for rest of his life, a total of 52 years. The man came to Christ a few months after George Mueller’s death.
There are certain people I pray for daily. I don’t say exactly the same thing about them, but the prayers are certainly very similar. But the prayer is from my heart, something I desperately desire to see happen in their lives. It is not an empty phrase heaped up repeatedly before God. Did you notice why we shouldn’t pray empty phrases? It is because God is omniscient.
~ Omniscience of God (v. 8)
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him
We often forget that God already knows. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray, because remember what we said last week about prayer bringing pleasure to God. It just means that God knows our heart about the matter already. Sometimes we think we need to take the offensive position talking to a defensive God who will wear down to our will if we say it over and over enough times. God knows even before you began to ask. We can trust God to hear our prayers and do what is best for us because He loves us. When His answer is a “no” or “wait,” then it is because He knows better than we do what would be good for us and His glory. We can trust Him. We can rest in His care.
I read a story from another preacher I felt I had to share with you that I think supports this.
There was a little English boy that was watching over his family’s flock of sheep one Sunday morning. The bells were ringing for church and the people were going past the field where he was when the boy began to think that he too would like to pray to God. But what could he say? He had never been taught any prayers, so he knelt down and started to recite the alphabet. A man walking by on the other side of the hedge heard the lad’s voice and peering through the bushes saw the little fellow kneeling with folded hands and closed eyes saying, “A, B, C . . .”. What are you doing there, my little man,” the gentleman said. “Please, sir, I was praying,” said the boy. “But what are you saying your letters for?” replied the man. “Why, I didn’t know any prayer, only I felt that I wanted God to take care of me and help me to care for the sheep; so I thought if I said all I knew, he would put it together and spell all I want.”
There are times we are not even sure what we ought to pray. Maybe like this little boy, we just need to let God put the prayer together in the way He knows best, after all, God is omniscient.
Today I hope that you have begun to see the importance of prayer from a heart that loves God and simply wants to talk to Him. It is not about a show of holiness for others to see, rather prayer is so much a part of our lives, that pray in the secret places is just as much or even more than prayer in the public places. Prayer is not a show of piety, it is a demonstration of your love for the God of creation.
We do not have to be long winded or eloquent to gain God’s attention. As with this little boy, we do not even have to know how to pray other than coming to God with humble hearts seeking His will for our lives. God is so attentive to us that, as Jesus says here, He even knows our needs before we ask.
I hope that you are a person of prayer simply because you love God. God longs to hear from you and takes great pleasure in knowing that you want to talk to Him. It is not about eloquent words or many words, it is simply about your heart’s desire to talk to Him.
Next Week we will take a look at what we call the Lord’s Prayer.
Pattern of Prayer (vv. 9-15)
But today, won’t you examine your heart about your prayer life. If you pray, what is your heart’s motivation to pray? If you don’t pray, why not.