Pastor Scott L. Harris
9/13/1992; January 10, 1998
The Proper Purpose & Practice of Prayer
Prayer – It is very simple is essence. It can be simply defined as talking to God. Yet prayer is one of the most complex subjects that can be discussed.
How can a human talk with the Creator of the universe?
How does an insignificant human address the Creator of the universe?
How can God hear all those prayers at once?
How does prayer work? –
God is sovereign and does not change, yet prayer somehow moves Him to do things differently?
How does God know what to do?
One farmer prays for rain because his crops are getting dry, and another farmer prays for a sunny day because he just cut his field of hay, and rain would ruin his crop.
Why are some prayers answered quickly, others only after a long delay, and some are answered “no.”
Why are some so good at praying and others not?
What is a good prayer?
What should we pray for?
As children we were taught to repeat simple prayers. Things like:
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I Pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
(I have always wondered how interjecting the idea that the child might die that night is supposed to comfort him/her).
We learn other prayer habits as children too such as saying a blessings before eating: “God is great, God is good. Now we thank Him for this food,” or as reported in a Boy Scout Troop where hunger preceded thought, “God is good, God is great, We now thank Him for the food we Ate”
What is proper prayer? How should we come to God? What should we pray for? Those are the questions that will be answered in this series on prayer. In Matthew 6:5-15 Jesus speaks on the subject of prayer and gives his disciples a pattern of prayer. But before we can get into what is often called “The Lord’s Prayer” we must look at what Jesus taught His disciples about the proper purpose and practice of prayer. Turn to Matthew 6:5.
Our passage this morning occurs within the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus presents His kingdom program. In it, Jesus describes the character, actions and motivations of the truly righteous and contrasts them with the teachings and practices of the Scribes and Pharisees. In the first part of Matthew 5, Jesus describes the characteristics of those who are truly righteous. In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus contrasted His teaching with that of the Scribes and Pharisees using the examples of murder, adultery, divorce, vows, revenge, and love. In each case Jesus showed how the hypocritical religious leaders had twisted the interpretation of the Mosaic law to fit the traditions they created.
Here in Chapter 6, Jesus is contrasting the behavior and practices of the Scribes and Pharisees with true righteousness. In each case Jesus exposes the self-righteous and self-centered practices of these religious leaders while explaining what the practice of a truly godly person would be. In our study last week, Jesus spoke against the way they gave alms (charity) to the poor. Instead of giving as an expression of heartfelt compassion in the desire to meet the needs of others, their giving was done simply to feed their self righteous pride. They had more interested in the reward of the acclaim of men rather than the acclaim of God. (See: Giving From the Heart).
In the section we begin this morning, Jesus teaches about proper prayer. In verses 5-8 Jesus explains the Proper Purpose and Practice of prayer before giving the Proper Pattern of prayer in verses 9-15.
I. The Proper Purpose of Prayer
Please turn to Matthew 6:5,6 if you are not already there.
“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 be men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your inner 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.”
The hypocritical Jewish religious leaders feigned or pretended to be something they were not. That is what a hypocrite is – someone who acts out a part that is not true in reality. They gave the appearance that they were close to God, but in reality they did not really care what God thought of them. What was important to them was what the people thought.
In a warning to His disciples about the Scribes’ hypocritical piety, Jesus said this of them in Luke 20:46-47, “Beware of the Scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation
The Scribes and Pharisees wanted the people to think they were pious and close to God, so they made it their practice to pray in such a way as to be seen by men. They went into the synagogues and made a show out of their prayers. The would stand before all the people, lifting up their hands and speaking loudly. In the streets, they would stop on the corners and do the same thing, calling attention to themselves and their supposed piety. Jesus says here that their prayers went only as far as the sound of their voice. They did not reach God because they were not meant for God.
And example of this is seen in Luke 18:9-14 where Jesus gives a parable contrasting the prayer of a self-righteous Pharisee with that of a penitent sinner. “And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'”
Take note of what it says in verse 11 that this Pharisee “prayed thus to himself.” Whether this man was praying silently or out loud is not clear. The general practice of the Pharisees, as we have already noted, was to pray in a manner that other people would notice them. I do not get the sense that this man was praying in silence, but rather out loud in a manner to gain the attention of others. He mentions God within the prayer, but the man is not praying to God. Everything in it was about himself. His prayer was not directed to God in true thanksgiving, but to himself in pride. “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself.”
The tax-gatherer who was also there to pray is quite a contrast to this Pharisee. Luke 18:13 “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
This man was truly speaking to God and it is demonstrated in the humility of his prayer. Remember we have already seen at the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount that it is the poor in spirit that are granted entrance into the kingdom of heaven. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). This tax-gatherer was mournful over his sins, and God granted his request for mercy. He left justified before God while the Pharisee left practicing his religious piety, but still in his sins.
There are plenty of people around today that are like the Pharisees. They are not marked by humility and pleading for mercy, but rather like the Pharisee, they recount how good they are in comparison to other people. They pray so that others can take note of their show of piety. This can be obvious or very subtle.
Martin Lloyd-Jones tells about a supposedly very pious man who demonstrated his godliness in that when walking down a hallway he would suddenly drop to his knees and pray. Lloyd-Jones wondered if that was necessarily honoring to God. Could he not have just as well prayed to God in secret while walking rather than calling attention to himself by his physical demonstrations.
Frankly, this is one of my concerns about the behavior of some “Christian Activists.” Yes, public prayer is proper if it is truly directed to God. But I wonder if this is what is happening when people get down on their knees and clap their hands or lift them up and call out a prayer in front of a movie house, porno store or an abortion clinic. The question that Jesus poses here is the motivation behind the prayer. Is it prayer to be seen of men and make the evening news, or true petitions before God?
Jesus says in our passage in Matthew 6:6 “But you, when you pray, go into your inner 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.” We are to pray to our heavenly Father in secret and let our reward come from Him and not from men.
Does this mean it is improper to pray in public or with other people? Not at all. Jesus prayed in public. The apostles prayed in public, and the early church held prayer meetings. But this does mean that you must have a proper purpose in your prayer which is to talk with God. If the motive is to make an impression on men, then such public prayers are no different than that of the Pharisees.
Example: Your habit is to give thanks to God before you eat which 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 and 1 Timothy 4:4,5 all direct us to do. You go to a restaurant and now you are faced with a question. Do you pray before you eat or not? If it is your habit to pray when you are alone, then you should pray just as you do when you are alone. Do not call undue attention to yourself, but at the same time do not cease your godly activity for the fear of men. Remember that Daniel ignored the King’s decree that prohibited prayer to anyone but the king. Daniel 6:10 says, “Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously.” Daniel did not make himself conspicuous. He simply continued to do what was his normal practice. We need to do the same even if it is in a public place like a restaurant. However, if it is not your habit to give thanks for meals when you are alone, then it is hypocritical for you to do so just because you are now in public.
This same principle applies to church prayer meetings. Praying with other believers is a good and proper thing to do as demonstrated by the early church (Acts 2:42 – devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer). Praying together allows others to join in our prayers, and we learn better how to pray by hearing others pray. But public prayer is built off of personal time spent with God. If the only time you pray is when you are praying with other believers in a group then do not fool yourself, because you are not fooling God. We have several opportunities for praying together every week. One of them is our meeting on Wednesday evenings. We are also starting home groups in January. Now it would be great if everyone came out to at least one of these meetings and joined in the prayer time, but in truth, I don’t want people who pray just to be heard by other people to come. I want people to come who are serious about praying to God.
Does that mean you should not come to prayer meeting unless your prayer life is all together? Of course not. But you should want it to be. You should earnestly desire to pray properly. If someone is tempted to pray to impress others rather than to seek God, they would do well to come one of our prayer times and hear the prayers of others and learn while remaining silent themselves.
Maybe you are experiencing what David Brainerd, that great missionary of the 1700’s, called his “Dark Night of Soul.” I have been there and so have many of you. Here was a man sold out to God. Hew as a “fool for Christ” in the modern vernacular. Yet, he felt God was distant and his prayers were not getting past the roof of his house. Spend some time alone with God this afternoon. Start pouring over your schedule to see what has usurped the priority of prayer in your life and then do something to change it!
The proper purpose of prayer is to communicate with God. We need not be and should not be concerned what other people think of us one way or the other. Our concern is to be talking with God and what He thinks of us. Jesus advocates here in verse 6 to pray in secret so that there would be no temptation to impress other people and we can receive the Father’s full reward. What a blessing to set aside a time of prayer in a secluded place. A place where you can pray without being interrupted. A place where you can pour out even the secret things of your heart.
We also find in this passage in verses 7 & 8 that Jesus is also concerned about the Proper Practice of prayer. If the motivation is wrong, then it is almost inevitable that you will also to fall into an incorrect practice of prayer. But even if our purpose in prayer is correct, we can still fall into the wrong practice of prayer.
II. The Proper Practice of Prayer
Here in Matthew 6:7 & 8, Jesus warns against an improper practice of prayer:
“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.”
Because most of us learn our practice of prayer from others, it is not unusual to find very godly people that pray with sincerity and with proper motives that fall into this trap of an improper practice of prayer. There are two improper practices that Jesus is speaking against here. First, is the foolishness of repeating some formal prayer so many times that it is said without thought to the meaning of what is being prayed. That is why it is “meaningless repetition.” The words still have meaning, but the heart and mind are no longer engaged in saying them so they are repeated thoughtlessly.
Many of you who grew up in a church were probably taught formal prayers of some type. Many of you who are from Catholic churches, or churches with heavy traditions may know quite a few formal prayers you were taught to say on particular occasions. Some of those formal prayers were worthless from the start. That would the “Hail, Mary” and “The Rosary,” because they are not directed to God. Others are actually very beautiful prayers composed with great thought that can be very helpful in bringing our hearts before God. But any prayer, regardless of how carefully composed to start with, that is repeated so often that the mind is no longer engaged in what is being said, is worthless.
One ex-Catholic fellow I met explained how Catholic confession worked. Since he had been a very active sinner in a strongly Catholic family, he was well acquainted with the process. He would go into the booth, tell the priest what he had done and priest would tell him he would have to do certain things which usually included saying certain prayers so many times, and then his sins would be forgiven. He said that for his friends and him the goal was to see how fast they could say all the words of the prayers. The prayers themselves were the meaningless repetition of words to satisfy the priests requirements. Perhaps some of you have done that yourself.
But lest I be accused of picking on Catholics only, I will broaden this to pick on everyone. How many of you repeat the same prayer before you eat a meal and you have done so for so long that you no longer have to think about what you are saying. I have been to many peoples homes were it was pretty obvious that “saying grace” before eating had degenerated into a formality rather than truly thanking God for what He had provided. Jesus warns us here against the practice of repeating prayers meaninglessly.
Second, Jesus is also speaking against praying the same thing over and over and over again like God cannot hear you. Yes, I continue to persevere in prayer and I will pray for the same request many times over the course of years, (salvation of a loved one, etc.), but I do not spend hours at a time making the same request. God hears and will answer in His timing and in His manner.
It is said of George Mueller of England that he began to pray for the salvation of 5 personal friends. After 5 years, one 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 for a total of 52 years. The man was not saved until a few months after George Mueller’s death. This is perseverance in prayer and it is an example for us to follow, but spending hours praying for the same things over and over again trying to get God to listen is not. We do not move God by producing an excessive amount of verbiage.
Many years ago when Diane and I were at Grace Community Church in California, I was the teacher of one of the church’s Bible studies for single adults ages 24-35. I met a young lady in that group that had some confusion over this principle. I think most of you would understand that for people in such a group one of the major decisions of life is taking place – who am I going to marry? That question often takes on added emotion and urgency with some of the ladies as they approach 30 years old. That was situation for this lady in the Bible study in regards to her relationship with a young man (now that I am 40, anyone in their 20’s is young!). This woman was recognized by all for her godliness. She had already been a deaconess in the church for several years. She was faithful in her devotional life. She took advantage of opportunities to witness to others about Christ. She was actively discipling other women and involved in church ministries.
She took the question of who she would marry very seriously as she and every other woman should. After laboring over the question for sometime she decided to devote a particular day to taking the matter before the Lord. This was all very commendable, yet she ended up with a problem. By the time she had prayed almost the whole day she was both exhausted and more confused than when she began. Why? She was praying with the proper motive of honestly seeking God. She was praying in secret. She was not repeating some prayer formula all day, but was honestly baring her heart before God for many hours on end. However, she had missed one important aspect of prayer which left her in confusion and anxiety rather than in the peace prayer should bring. She thought that she had to bring the matter to the Lord over and over and over and over again. The real problem was not a lack of prayer, but a lack of understanding God’s love for her and trusting Him to take care of the matter she was praying about.
Our text says that the Gentiles used a lot of meaningless repetition supposing that in doing so God would hear them for their many words. But look at vs 8: “Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him.” Do you understand the personal interest that God has in you? You do not need to keep going over and over something in order for God to pay attention to you. He knew your need before you even began to ask Him about it. The proper practice of prayer is to bring the matter before the Lord and leave the matter with Him. That is how prayer can bring us peace.
Paul said of prayer in Philippians 4:6,7, Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Peace comes because we can trust God for the matter. Isaiah 26:3,4 Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. 4 Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength:
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. We can trust Him. We can rest in His care.
Our confidence in God should be like that demonstrated by a little English boy that was watching over his families 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.”
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.
The proper purpose in prayer is communication with God and seeking Him and not the recognition of men. The proper practice of prayer is bringing our needs to Him with the simple faith that He knows our needs, hears our prayers and will provide for us. Neither eloquent speech or being long winded impresses God in any way. God longs to hear the prayers of those who long to be righteous from the heart.
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