How Not to Pray
IT WAS LIKE THOSE TIMES when you are lying in bed with your eyes half-closed, not knowing if you are dreaming or awake. But there I was, sitting behind a table with my associate, Andrew Fulton, at my side. We were guest panelists over at the local college, where our job was to defend the claims of Christianity. One student after another would come up to the microphone and politely ask his or her questions. We gave our answers. So far, so good; it was all going quite well. But then a young man approached the microphone, and with some venom in his voice he said, “Jesus said a lot of things that are just plain wrong.” Then he went on to cite some supposed examples from Jesus’ teachings. When he was done with his accusations, he swaggered back to his seat and sat down quite satisfied.
Here is what I did in the dream. (I don’t know about your dreams, but in mine, I am much bolder than I am in reality.) I stood up, leaned over the table, looked him dead in the eyes, and said, “You don’t know what you are talking about. Have you ever read the Bible? Do you know anything of Western literature or philosophy or religion or history?” Andrew looked up at me with a worried expression on his face. But on I went. “Listen, kid, there was and is nobody like Jesus. Don’t tell me what Jesus said was wrong. Are you kidding me? Who are you? What do you know?” And then, just as I was ready to throw my folding chair at him and simultaneously shout, “Get out of here,” Andrew grabbed my shoulder, pulled me down, and whispered, “I'll take this one.”
There is usually something true about our dreams. So perhaps I could use a class on anger management. But I also do have great zeal for Jesus and the Book about him. In John 7:46, as the Jews are debating over Jesus and his claims, the temple officers defend the fact that they have not brought Jesus into custody for some crime, saying, “No one ever spoke like this man!” That is exactly how I feel, at a much deeper level. I have read the great writers. I have listened to the great speakers. I know my history, philosophy, literature, religion, and theology, and I can tell you that no one in the history of the world ever spoke like Jesus. No one!
And just one of the ways Jesus demonstrates his awesome uniqueness is, interestingly and perhaps unexpectedly, in his teaching on prayer. What he says on prayer is certainly different than what is taught in any of the world’s great religions or by any popular New Age mystic. It is also different than anything in the whole of Scripture! It is different in the sense that from Genesis to Revelation, this is the only place where we have direct instruction on prayer.
So as we come again to the Sermon on the Mount, we come to the pinnacle of prayer, the most unique and important teaching on prayer in the history of the world. My hope now, as we look at this pinnacle, is that we will begin not only to see this mountain but to move it, if you will, into the plain of our lives.
When You Pray
In verse 5 Jesus begins, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.”
Jesus’ audience was surely struck by the last part of that sentence, “you must not be like the hypocrites.” For many of us, however, the first part is the cause for concern and/or consternation. “When you pray...’’You see, Jesus assumes his audience prays—both his closest disciples and even those who would eventually become his enemies.
But surely that same assumption cannot be made today, not only outside the Ecclesia, but also within it. Just as an avowed atheist will only resort to prayer (in whatever form and to whatever god) as his last resort, sadly I fear that many Christians today likewise resort to prayer only in times of great need or when they desire the fulfillment of some bigheaded dream. For many of us, prayer is not a habit in our lives. We do not emulate Daniel who prayed three times a day (Daniel 6:10). nor the psalmist who praised God “seven times a day” (Psalm 119:164). And the example of Anna, who “worshiped with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37), or Jesus, who spent the whole night in prayer (Luke 6:12), is unreal or surreal to us. The plot in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds is more likely to occur. Martians from Mars attacking the earth is more probable than you and I praying a whole day and night. Let’s be perfectly honest. We live in a prayerless world and in a prayerless Ecclesia. I can say with confidence that the good majority of us are not disciplined when it comes to prayer.
We can blame our negligence on the recent advances in science and technology, which seek to unveil all mysteries and free us from dependence on supernatural forces beyond our control. Or we can blame the great influence of entertainment, which takes our attention from the sublime and the divine and focuses it on the trite and the trivial. But the real blame must fall on us. We don’t pray because we don't understand God. Or worse, we don’t pray because we don’t love, trust, or need God. Since God doesn’t matter to us as much as we think or say, prayer doesn’t matter much either.
So in this chapter I start where Jesus saw no need to start. I start with a plea for prayer. And I plead with you to pray, not solely on the basis of the Scriptural commands do so, but also because you believe God actually exists, cares, and is powerful to help. I plead with you to pray as a sincere expression of your trust and your desire to commune with the true and living God.
But how are we to pray? That is a real question for many of us. We may desire to pray, but we don’t know where to begin. If that is where you find yourself, you are in good company, for that is the precise place we find Jesus’ first followers. In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ instructions are in response to a disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Let that disposition be ours now as we go through 6:5-8 and see what Jesus has to say.
How Not to Pray
Over the years I have been criticized for being too critical in my preaching. And I’m sure from time to time such accusations have some truth to them. There is a temptation for young preachers to shock and exaggerate. Yet I must say, in defense of continuing the practice of preaching the negatives, I am but a poor copy of the original. Jesus’ teaching style, which was the same as the prophets and apostles, was usually to present the true in light of the false. He would teach what we should believe or do by first showing what we should not believe or do. This is certainly what he does throughout the Sermon on the Mount. The most repealed phrase in this grand exhortation is, “You have heard it said, but I say to you...” In other words, “You have heard such and such a doctrine or practice as meaning this or that, but now I say to you that such thinking or doing is wrong, and what I now have to teach you is right.”
This is precisely what Jesus does in this passage on prayer. He starts with a short sermon on how not to pray. Just look at how positively negative Jesus is! Look with me at verses 5-8, and notice all the nots.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites... And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do... Do not be like them...
Before Jesus presents the positives on prayer, he starts with the negatives. We are not to be like the hypocrites. We are not to be like the Gentiles. We are not to pray like them!
Not like the Hypocrites
First, we are not to pray like the hypocrites. To pray like a hypocrite is to playact or pray-act in order to “be seen by others” (v. 5b). So again, as it was with giving and fasting, the goal of being seen by others is the problem.
Since Jesus says that “they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners” (v. 5b), it is tempting to take issue with the posture and places of these hypocrites. They are standing when they pray and are praying both indoors and outdoors, in religious and secular places—in “the synagogues and at the street corners.” However, their posture is not the essential problem, although it is perhaps a symptom. I say it is not the posture because the Bible shows that one can pray standing, sitting, kneeling, or prostrate (facedown), and that our Lord modeled most of these postures himself. Nor is the place the basic problem. It was more than appropriate to pray in the synagogue (a place of prayer) as well as to pray in the streets if it was the time for prayer. Of course, the fact that these hypocrites were praying on the “street corners” or more literally at “the corners of the wide streets” (in other words, the busy intersections) does sound a sour note, like the note of a loud trumpet played off-key. Yet, it is crucial for us to know that the ancient Jews, similar to modern Muslims, would pray at set times. There is no reason to believe Jesus rejected this tradition, and there is positive evidence that the apostles practiced it. In Acts 3:1, for example, Peter and John went to the temple at “the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.”
So the problem was neither posture nor place but people! These hypocrites were praying to receive the praise of people, which was “their reward” (v. 5c), as Jesus says sarcastically. “Their reward” was the praise of men but not of God. the approval and applause of earth but not of Heaven. Who is our audience in prayer, and what is our motive? That’s what Jesus is getting at.
In one of his classic books on prayer, R. A. Torrey says, “We should never utter one syllable of prayer either in public or in private until we are definitely conscious that we have come into the presence of God and are actually praying to Him.” That is precisely what Jesus teaches in verse 6, where he gives the corrective to this oxymoronic notion of man-centered devotion." Jesus says,
“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.”
The secret to understanding this verse is the word “secret." The secret to sincere prayer, prayer that is “rewarded” (perhaps with an answer or certainly with divine approval), is making sure that the only eyes open to us during times of prayer are those of this secret-seeing or universally-present God. “Thou God seest me” (Genesis 16:13, kjv). You see me when I give and fast, out also when I pray.
Then said, it is not as though Jesus is opposed to public prayer. He himself prayed publicly (see John 11:41, 42; Matthew 14:19), as did Solomon (2 Chronicles 6:1-42), the Levites (Nehemiah 9:5-38), and many other notable figures in the Bible. Rather, being acutely aware of the human tendency to pray in order to gain the praise of others, our Lord provides a helpful remedy: find a room and lock the door. Find even a storeroom (which Jesus is possibly referring to here), the least sanctified place in the house—where food, tools, and other supplies were stored, but where privacy is most likely assured. Of course, a locked room does not guarantee sincerity and humility before God, but it is a safe solution against insincerity and pride—against hypocrisy. As John MacArthur notes, “the word hypocrite originally referred to actors who used large masks to portray the roles they were playing.” It is hard to be a hypocrite—to play-act before God—if you are alone in a closet with the door shut. It can be done, but it is less likely to be done.
At this point don’t make the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ primary emphasis is on location (that we must have a prayer closet). Rather, his emphasis is on attitude. “Don’t show off when you pray!”—that’s his point. And since most of us are show-offs by nature, a quiet, secluded place will help us meet our proper objective. So it is essential that we find a time and place where we can pray unobserved, undisturbed, and unheard by people, but not by God, for God alone is always to be “before our eyes when we engage in prayer.”
I know this can be a real challenge for many of us. It used to be quite a challenge for me. I am an early riser, so I get up at least an hour before everyone else in my home. This allows me some time for prayer and reading. Yet just a few years ago finding such a time and place for unobserved, undisturbed devotion to God was nearly impossible. This was due mostly to my second daughter (who will remain unnamed) who would awake as early as I did. Yet at that season of my life, I did learn to resign myself to a pattern of prayer that I have found to be not only more practical but also (perhaps?) more Biblical.
Based on this passage, Martin Luther said prayers should be “brief, frequent, and intense.” I like that, for the brevity of prayer can naturally lead to the frequency of prayer, and more frequent prayer might lead to more fervent prayer. And that’s what we want. It is of no value to pray for prayer’s sake. How far better to pray when you really mean it and when your attention is focused where it should be—namely, on God.
Ecclesiastes 5:1, 2 provides a wonderful word on prayer:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
When we come before our great and holy God, let our words be few. Augustine put it this way: “Remove from prayer much speaking, not much praying.”
Not like the Gentiles
Having scattered the proud, Jesus next quiets the babblers: “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” (vv. 7, 8).
It appears from the Gospels that the public prayers of the scribes and Pharisees were “ritualistic, mechanical, long, repetitious, and above all ostentatious.” But it is not the Jews Jesus criticizes here, but the “Gentiles,” a term that simply means “non-Jews.” In other words, Jesus is talking about how pagans pray. And at the heart of pagan prayer is the heaping up of many empty phrases or what earlier translators called “vain repetition.”
Jesus does not condemn all long prayers or all repetition here, for as I mentioned earlier, he prayed all night (Luke 6:12) and repeated his prayer at Gethsemane (26:36-46). Rather, it is vain repetitions, where “many words” are thought to mediate between God and man.
There is a decent example of this indecent act in Acts 19 where we read that the silversmiths of Ephesus aroused a crowd against Paul and his companions, chanting for two hours to their god, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (v. 34). For two hours—can you imagine? With this Acts text, however, it is difficult to discern whether the mob is merely shouting or if their shouting is based on prayer patterns. Another and clearer example of this phenomenon is the conflict between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. Do you remember the absurdity of the pagans’ prayers? First Kings 18:26 tells us that from morning till noon these pagan priests were hard at it, repeating over and over again, “O Baal, answer us!” “But there was no voice, and no one answered” (surprise, surprise!). At noon Elijah, the fun-loving prophet of the true God, mocked them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god [right?]. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). To this the priests of Baal
cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention, (vv. 28, 29)
In contrast, how did Elijah act? He modeled perfectly Jesus’ point with his composed frame of mind and his concise, faith-filled petition. But the point here is that this episode is quite typical of pagan prayer. The rule of pagan or “Gentile” prayer (and I include in this group Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and any other world religion save true Christianity) is “much avails much,” that is, the more I talk to god, the more likely he is to listen.
Sadly Christianity, with its long and at times sordid history, has not been immune to the practice of pagan prayer or the influence of Gentile babbling. For example, in The Way of a Pilgrim, a classic work on Russian Orthodox spirituality, the author combines the tax collector’s prayer (“Lord, have mercy on me a sinner”) with Paul's admonition to “pray without ceasing” and calls this combination “the Jesus Prayer.” If you have ever read J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, this is modeled by Franny. “The Jesus Prayer” consists of repeating over and over again, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Although this is called “the Jesus Prayer,” in reality it is far from how Jesus taught us to pray. In fact if you turn up the speed and number of repetitions, it resembles a pagan mantra more than a Christian prayer.
Having grown up Roman Catholic I remember “praying” my rosary (which, by the way, came to Catholicism from Buddhism by way of Spanish Muslims during the Middle Ages) with devotion and sincerity but with a quickness of repetition that eclipsed my brain waves. One month out of the year I would pray the rosary every day, and since the rosary consists of fifty-three Hail Mary’s, six Our Father’s and six Glory Be’s (i.e., the Gloria Patri), here is how I would pray to get through it in a reasonable amount of time. Fingering each bead, I would pray:
sinnersnowandatthehourofourdeathamenourfatherwhoartinheaven hallowedbethynamethykingdomcomethywillbedoneonearthasitisinheaven giveusthisdayourdailybreadandforgiveusourtrespassesasweforgivethose whohavetrespassedagainstusandleadusnotintotemptationbutdeliverus fromevilglorybetothefatherandtothesonandtotheholyspiritasitwasinthe beginningisnowandevermoreshallbeworldwithoutendamen.
Not bad, huh? How sad, huh? A bunch of “Christian” prayers prayed like a pagan.
It is this kind of mindless prayer that Jesus has in mind. Lip-labor that is not in service to the soul and not connected to the mind is reproved and condemned.
Of course, all of us (even we) have been guilty of this kind of mindlessness in prayer, of letting our tongues run ahead of our heads, whether it is while praying before a meal or during a prayer meeting. Our lips are moving, but our hearts and minds stand still. They are deaf to what is being said. This is not very different, Jesus is teaching us, from a pagan uttering nonsense syllables or magical incantations.
Earlier I mentioned what Luther said about prayer—that it is to be “brief, frequent, and intense.” Here is another bit of practical advice from him. Full of his usual blend of humor and sobriety, Luther writes concerning verse 7:
The Gentile delusion [is] that prayer meant making both God and oneself tired with yelling and murmuring... But the Christian’s prayer is easy [!], and it does not cause hard work... It presents its need from the heart. Faith quickly gets through telling what it wants... God has no need of such everlasting twaddle.
Interestingly, Luther goes on to say that “the ancient fathers [i.e., the church fathers] have said correctly that many long prayers are not the way. They recommend short, fervent prayers, where one sighs toward Heaven with a word or two, as is often quite possible in the midst of reading, writing, or doing some other task.” Jesus gives us great liberty and latitude! Don’t put yourself in a straitjacket when Jesus has given you wings to fly.
Pagan prayer requires much because it has a wrong view of God, a view that he is a grudging giver, reluctant to act unless prayers are long and usually hard-fought. But Jesus teaches that this attitude is all wrong. Look again at our final verse. Here Jesus teaches that our “Father” has no need of long prayers because he has no lack of information. He “knows what you need before you ask him” (v. 8). Isn’t that a relief? If God already knows what you need, there is no need to fill his ears with a lot of drivel or—what did Luther call it? “everlasting twaddle.” Get to the point—that’s the point. God is not a mortal man who needs to be informed and then solicited. Our God can discern, as is taught in Romans 8:26, “groanings too deep for words.” So pray to God with reverence, like a servant addressing a king. But pray also with simplicity, directness, and sincerity,” like a child asking something of his loving father.
The Light Yoke of Prayer
I have prayed my whole life. There is not a day in my post-toddler days when I cannot remember offering up some sort of prayer. But most of my prayer has been a farce. I can say for certain during the first half of my life, although I prayed and prayed and prayed, most often I heaped up empty phrases to God and thus treated him more like an idol than the supreme maker and sustainer of this universe.
But when I came to Christ, the first prayer I offered to God was perhaps the best and the purest prayer I have ever given or will ever give. It was short and simple. And it was sincere. It was like a naughty, guilty little child asking his father for the forgiveness and reconciliation he so desperately needed.
Jesus gave an example of the perfect prayer (what we now call the Lord’s Prayer), and it too was short (it might take twenty seconds to pray) and simple (even a two-year-old can say and memorize the words), and if prayed sincerely it is a most pleasing prayer.
My brothers and sisters, whether I am dreaming about defending my Lord Jesus, as I did a few days ago, or teaching his words, as I am doing right now, I must tell you I only grow in my conviction that “No one ever spoke like this man!” No one is like Jesus—so humble, powerful, and wise. And what wisdom he has here for us—a yoke that is light. If we rest in him, this yoke of prayer is surprisingly light.
(R. Kent Hughes. and Douglas Sean O'Donnell., 2013; edited Carl Hinton., 2020)