This article is an excerpt from my book, The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down: The Lord’s Prayer as a Manifesto for Revolution. This post is the second in an eight part series on the Lord’s Prayer.
As a Christian, do you want to learn how to pray more faithfully? Do you need to learn more about prayer? One of the greatest gifts Christ gives us is instruction in prayer. Interestingly, it was the disciples who asked Jesus to teach them. Luke 11:1 tells us that the disciples came to Jesus and made a clear request: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” It is also incredibly interesting that when Jesus honored the disciples’ request, he first taught them how not to pray.
Sometimes, before we can really understand how to do something important, we have to understand how not to do it.
Before You Pray: A Few Things Jesus Wants You to Remember
Do Not Pray Like the Hypocrites
The first thing Jesus tells us as we prepare to pray is “do not be like the hypocrites.” Jesus condemns all forms of hypocrisy but here he is speaking of a very specific, public hypocrisy. As we have seen, this display of hypocrisy is one that seeks personal attention for piety. Jesus explains the interior motive of these types of hypocrites: “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.”
Of course, historically, Jesus is referring to the ostentatious prayers of the Pharisees, but we need to see this as a temptation for ourselves as well. You and I can easily succumb to the temptation to engage in hypocritical prayer that is about God in its formal address, but far from him in terms of the posture of our heart.
Jesus not only spells out what he does not want his disciples to do, but also what they are supposed to do: “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.” Having a private prayer room can of course be a very useful tool for personal devotion to God. Yet Jesus’ teaching here does not suggest that the primary issue is architecture. The idea in this passage is seclusion. The real issue is not so much where you pray, but praying in secret so as not to parade your piety in front of others.
When we pray in isolation, we pray because we are seeking communion with God. In that isolation we find that true prayer is going to happen because we are not posing or posturing. The result of praying like this is a reward from the Father in heaven. The Father who knows what is done in secret will reward those who pray in secret.
Do Not Pray to Impress
The first corrective Jesus offers is that we should not pray to impress people. The second corrective Jesus offers is that we should not pray to impress 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.” God is not looking for long words, long prayers, and mindless repetition. We do not impress God with how great our prayers are. Jesus warns not only against the Pharisaical, hypocritical prayers; he also warns against the prayers of the pagan Gentiles who thought that they would be heard for their many words. They piled up meaningless phrases in meaningless repetition…
We find something similar in 1 Kings 18 at the battle of the gods on Mt. Carmel. The Pagan priests were furiously repetitive in their prayers and labored to get the attention of their gods, so much so that they even lacerated their bodies to attract their gods’ interest in their activity. Elijah used this as an opportunity to give a little theology of prayer. Due to Baal’s utter lack of response, Elijah mocked Baal’s priests by saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then Elijah demonstrated that God is not impressed by our many words. His prayer was simple: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
Matthew 6:8 is one of the most important verses in order to understand the Lord’s Prayer: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If we come to understand that our Father knows our needs before we ask him, then far from leading us away from prayer, our prayer lives will be utterly transformed. We will see a sovereign God who is ready and able to answer our prayers, and who directs all things for our good and his glory. A solid biblical theology of God informs how we understand what we are doing when we come before his throne of grace with our requests and needs.