Jean’s Gospel: How Not To Pray
When God adopts us into His family, He enjoins us to pray to Him and makes the practice of prayer simple, easy and effective. However, because of sin, Christians often do not experience prayer that way. To the contrary, Christians often find prayer difficult and ineffectual, and wonder if only gifted Christians pray regularly.
The reason for our difficulties is that the world, Satan and our sinful nature conspire against us, creating obstacles to prayer. These obstacles take the form of temptations to turn prayer from a conversation with God into a human work to reach God. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples against turning prayer into a human work in search of the approval of other people (Matt 6:5-6) or of God (Matt 6:7-8).
“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.” (Matt 6:5)
The word hypocrite comes from a first century Greek word that means “stage actor.” Jesus says that prayer is not play-acting for the benefit of an audience. Prayer is not a performance, nor is it a religious practice to be used to impress others. In opposition to the practice of the hypocrites, Jesus said: “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.” (Matt 6:6) Jesus was not laying down a law against praying in public. Scripture is replete with examples of public prayer. The epitome of public worship is prayer: “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matt 21:13; Isa 56:7). Furthermore, Christians could not “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) if they had to pray only in private rooms. What Jesus was doing, however, was drawing a stark contrast between false and true prayer practices.
We cannot converse with God and other people simultaneously. We can pray with others, and we can pray for others, but true prayer has God as its sole object. Therefore, when Jesus says “go into your room and shut the door”, he wants us to clear our minds of outside distractions and attend exclusively to God. An actual private room is a good means to eliminate external distractions. But even a private room cannot eliminate internal distractions. Our minds are capable of wandering no matter where we are. Therefore, Jesus emphasizes both the folly of praying to be seen by others and the benefit of praying without distraction: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
God is everywhere in secret. Before Jesus ascended to the Father, He said to His disciples: “I am with you always” (Matt 28:20). The Apostle Paul said of God: “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27-28). Christians can pray to God anywhere, in silence or audibly, including in the most private of places, because God is with us everywhere. There is no ladder to climb and no required ascetic practices. God is not hard of hearing. It takes no work to converse with God.
“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.” (Matt 6:7-8)
Jesus addresses another fundamental misconception about prayer: that it is a work to obtain God’s approval. The words of prayer are indeed very useful to help us organize and discipline our thoughts towards God. Our words should present what is on our mind. However, the misuse of words may reveal a mind that has a fundamental misunderstanding about our relationship with God.
Do not heap up empty phrases. The objective of prayer is not to badger God to catch His attention or rouse Him to help us. Our worthiness to pray should never enter a Christian’s thoughts. We are never heard for our worthiness, and are never rejected for our unworthiness. We come before the Father in Jesus name, sanctified by His blood and for His sake our heavenly Father is delighted with us. A Christian should trust that our heavenly Father is always near us, attentive to our needs and willing to help us. He wants us to be constant in prayer, but not using empty phrases (i.e., babbling or mindless chattering).
God does not measure or value our prayers based on the quantity of words spoken. The quantity is irrelevant. God searches the heart. No one is going to change God’s mind or obligate Him about anything based on trying to earn a certain result from prayer. Such a mindset, which attempts to manipulate God by working at prayer, is fundamentally inconsistent with the family relationship that a Christian enjoys with God.
They think they will be heard for their many words. God does not measure or value our prayers based on the quantity of words spoken. The quantity is irrelevant. God searches the heart. No one is going to change God’s mind or obligate Him about anything based on trying to earn a certain result from prayer. Such a mindset, which attempts to manipulate God by working at prayer, is fundamentally inconsistent with the family relationship that a Christian enjoys with God.
The purpose of prayer is not to inform God about our needs as if He is uninformed. The purpose of prayer is to bring our thanksgiving and requests to him and then to depend on him for our bodily and spiritual wellbeing. He is ready to help us and often does help us without even being asked. However, through prayer to seek bodily and spiritual blessings from God and to receive such blessings from Him with thanksgiving.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. The purpose of prayer is not to inform God about our needs as if He is uninformed. The purpose of prayer is to bring our thanksgiving and requests to him and then to depend on him for our bodily and spiritual wellbeing. He is ready to help us and often does help us without even being asked. However, through prayer we learn to seek bodily and spiritual blessings from God and to receive such blessings from Him with thanksgiving.
“Pray then like this” (Matt 6:9)
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gave His disciples a pattern and words for prayer to help them avoid the works-based false praying of the hypocrites and Gentiles. For example:
- Jesus’ prayer hallows God’s name; it does not seek the admiration of self or others.
- Jesus’ prayer is a simple conversation with our heavenly Father; it is not a work to cajole a benefit out of a task master.
- Jesus’ prayer is the Word and asks for all things in accordance with His will; therefore, it is the antithesis of a prayer of empty phrases.
- Jesus’ prayer is succinct yet comprehensive; though it is not composed of many words.
- Jesus’ prayer was composed by God’s Son; so we are freed from doubt or distraction about what to say or request or whether our prayer will be heard or answered.
“Let the Father acknowledge the words of His Son when we make our prayer, and let Him also who dwells within in our breast Himself dwell in our voice. And since we have Him as an Advocate with the Father for our sins, let us, when as sinners we petition on behalf of our sins, put forward the words of our Advocate. For since He says, that ‘whatsoever we shall ask of the Father in His name, He will give us,’ how much more effectually do we obtain what we ask in Christ’s name, if we ask for it in His own prayer!” (Cyprian of Carthage, 200-258 AD)
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