In this post and in the following eight posts our discussion will be drawn strictly from what Jesus taught us about prayer in the gospels.
In my study, I found fourteen different passages in the gospels where Jesus taught on prayer. I have organized them into eight different categories. This is an excerpt from my book Principles of Prayer.
#1. Jesus taught that prayer is not to be directed to others or self but to God alone; therefore, it must not in any way be a show or an effort of good works, but rather to be as a humble cry to God for help (from Matthew 6:5-8 and Luke 18:9-14).
We will outline this section in three parts. First, from Mathew 6:5…
1. Prayer must not be a show of good works. Jesus said, “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.”
I think there is a little of the hypocrite in all of us. For it is in our nature to want to be on the stage and to exalt ourselves in front of others, even if what we are displaying about ourselves isn’t genuine. According to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “[This showy type of praying] is sin in the form of self and of pride…It is a state of the heart…It is self worship and self-adulation.” Lloyd-Jones goes on to say that this tendency to self-adulation is alarming and terrifying because, he says, “It follows us even into the very presence of God.” He also states that this sin is not of the poor drunkard; rather this sin invades itself upon the unusually devout and devoted man, who spends much of His time on his knees in the presence of God. For him the temptation is to think about how good and how godly he is; and so he is tempted to turn and worship himself rather than God.
The extent of this type of prayer is that it will ruin the greatest of saints. I think it is the worst kind of sin. It is the sin of the scribe and Pharisees of Jesus day. Here is an example of this kind of Pharisee-prayer in one of Jesus’ parables (in Luke 18:9-14):
“God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”
Do you see the sinfulness, the boastfulness of this prayer?
Well here is what Jesus said about Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27, 28).
2. Prayer must be to God alone. In Matthew 6:6 Jesus said to His disciples, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
Therefore, in contrast to the hypocrites who love to be seen praying, and who do not really pray to God at all, but pray to themselves (Read Luke 18:11), we are to go away from the eyes of people, to a quiet place, and pray to God alone. We are not to seek the praise of others when we pray, but we can expect to be rewarded by the Father. And that reward will be much better than any praise from men.
Where is this secret place of prayer, this “room” that we are to go to? Well, I think “your room” is any place away from distractions and away from people. The achieving of this solitude is described as “shutting your door.” This could mean literally the door of your own private room, but mainly I think it means shutting the inner door of your heart. So here the clear teaching is that we are to shut the door of our heart so that we are giving God our full attention. And we are also to shut the door for privacy so that we may feel at ease to open up our heart, to reveal private matters and personal sins to God.
This place is a place where the entire world is shut out and where your relationship with God will thrive. You may need to go to an actual, physical place of quiet—perhaps by a quiet stream, or maybe just in your own room; but wherever you go, the objective is to achieve quiet in your mind and heart, so that you can pray unhindered to God alone.
3. Prayer must not be with vain repetitions. In verses 7 and 8 Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”
Here the teaching is clear: we are not to pray, praying the same words over and over again, as if God is hard of hearing, or as if He is not interested, or as if He has decided that He will only heed prayers that are repeated a certain amount of times. No, God does hear and He knows your needs even before you ask Him. He knows your needs better than you do. He cares about your every wish, your every desire. And He wants to give you what you need quickly.
So why do we Christians pray as pagans? One answer, I suppose, is that we don’t think. We pray with our emotions instead of our head. And when we have needs and fears, we feel desperate, and we forget that God already knows our needs. And so we begin to babble and cry and whine like a baby.
Another reason why we pray as pagans is because we just haven’t learned to pray yet. We actually believe that God will not answer us unless we pray a certain number of times—the more the better. We believe that our repeated prayers impress Him.
I suppose the ultimate example of this kind of praying is in 1 Kings 18:26-29, where the priests of Baal repeatedly prayed to their god to come and burn the sacrifice they had prepared. The story says that they continued leaping around the altar, crying loudly and even cutting themselves. They prayed in that manner all day long.
But we are not pagans! We are believers! They prayed out of fear and unbelief. We pray because we know that God loves us, cares for us, and sees our needs. Hence, when we pray let us pray with confidence, knowing that God always hears us.