Prayer is, arguably, one of the greatest struggles of the Christian faith. While some may lament their poor Bible study habits, or their failure to share the gospel as frequently as they should, almost all would likely mourn over their poor prayer life. Almost no one will say that they feel they have reached the pinnacle of their prayer life; almost all are forced to admit that we do not pray as we should. And, yet, prayer is the oxygen of our spiritual life. Just as we need to breathe to live physically, we need to pray to live spiritually.
Prayer, however, is a privilege of the saint with many promises. For example, God promised in 2 Chronicles 7:14 that, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” While that particular promise was given to ancient Israel through King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, the principle remains the same: God will honor the humble prayers of his saints. If the saints today would submit themselves to God in humble contrition and earnest prayer, would not God still send reformation and revival as he has done countless times in the past?
Yet, we do not currently have revival or reformation. We do not see a white harvest being reaped by many laborers, though Jesus commanded us to pray for laborers to be sent into the harvest that is ripe and white and plentiful (Matt 9:36–38). Instead, we see the decline of Christendom in the West. We see morality on the downgrade. We see churches emptying and closing.
Ultimately, our culture partially reflects the failures of the Church at large. When our churches are healthy, functioning, and thriving, the culture is bereft of godlessness and full of holiness. But how does that happen? In part, it happens when our churches are full of saints who are warriors of prayer, praying as God intended.
Consider the great revivals of the past. When Martin Luther saw reformation, he was known as a man of prayer. One of his most famous quotes is, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” When Charles Spurgeon saw the Metropolitan Tabernacle filled with thousands in the nineteenth century in London, it was because he prayed earnestly. When the Puritans saw revival in England and America, it’s because they were men and women of prayer.
We must be people of prayer. We must be prayer warriors who pray as God intended. To borrow a line from William Carey, we must pray expecting great things from God, and then we must go forth to attempt great things for God, by his grace and for his glory. But it all begins with knowing how to pray, which Jesus fleshes out for our benefit in Matthew 6:5–9. Here, he aids us by offering us two warnings about what prayer is not and then shows us what prayer is.
Let us consider these truths and learn to pray as God intended:
1. Do not pray as the hypocrites do, to be noticed by others, but to be heard by God.
Jesus’s command in Matthew 6:5 is a simple one: “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.” This is a picture of how the Pharisees evidently prayed. They would stand in public spots and pray long-winded, elaborate, and noticeable prayers. As they did so, they would be seen by people—which is exactly what they wanted!—and they would be praised. Surely, some would say of them, “There are none more holy than they!”
But that was it. Their reward was being praised by men. There was no answer from God. As it turns out, even if the content of the prayer was theologically accurate, God had no interest in answering because it came from a hypocritical heart set on others, rather than focused on God.
Before dismissing this warning as peculiar to the Pharisees, we must see this as a danger common to man. Hypocrisy is born of anxious, worried, and insecure hearts. When we are fearful of how others perceive us, and when we want them to think highly of us, we behave or talk differently. Hypocritical prayers are borne of anxious hearts that are more concerned with people than God.
The solution that Jesus offers comes in verse 6: “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.” Whether we are seen before thousands or none, we live before an audience of One. We must live for the glory of God alone. Prayer is similar. It doesn’t really matter if you’re in public or by yourself, or with only a few. We must resist the temptation to think that our prayers are meant to be heard by others. We must resist the temptation to believe that our prayers must impress others. We must remember that our prayers are a conversation between us and God. Whether before thousands or none, we must pray to be heard by God alone.
So, we are to pray in secret. Now, this doesn’t mean all public prayers are bad. Jesus prayed publicly. We pray publicly in our church services. And Paul commands us to pray without ceasing, which would include both public and private prayers. The point here is that God is omnipresent, and so he sees, hears, and knows all. We must pray to be heard by him alone.
Thus, we need not be ashamed in coming to God with a need. You can be honest and open with your Lord. He can carry that burden in a way that no other can. At the same time, this omnipresent God hears us wherever and whenever we pray. So, we may pray honestly, without fear, anxiety, or hypocrisy. Your Heavenly Father loves you. You must be open and honest before him.
2. Do not pray as the pagans do, to try and capture God’s attention, but trust that he already cares for you.
Jesus warns, “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). “Gentiles” here is referring to more than just those who are not ethnically Jews; it is representative of those pagans who know not the Lord.
The most famous example of such pagan-like prayers comes from the prophets of Baal. When they fought with the Prophet Elijah at Mt Carmel (1 Kgs 18:20–40), they tried to get Baal’s attention by ranting, raving, and cutting themselves like madmen. Ultimately, the pagan must behave in this way, for he does not know if his god is listening, if he cares, or if he will even choose to respond.
Such prayer would be exhausting, wouldn’t it? So, Jesus cuts through it. We are not praying to capture God’s attention, because God’s ear is already pressed to our hearts, as it were, and he is waiting to hear from us. We can pray faithfully and expectantly, without doubt or worry. In fact, when we pray, we are to pray “in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (Jas 1:6). This does not mean that we pray for any old thing, but according to the will of God. As 1 John 5:14–15 encourages us to remember, “This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
So, we are not like pagans who do not know God. We know God and we know he listens for us when we pray according to his will, as he has revealed it within his Word. When we pray in this way, we know God delights to answer our prayers. Such knowledge impedes us from hypocritical prayers as well, for how could the one who has an audience with God ever desire to exchange it for an audience with man? Therefore:
3. We are to pray as children of God.
The Lord’s Prayer is astonishing from beginning to end, but the start of the prayer would have been shocking to the listeners of Jesus’s day. “Pray then like this,” Jesus commands, “Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matt 6:9).
Not as hypocrites, not as pagans, but as children. We have the immense privilege and joy of calling God our “Father.” We don’t need to try and convince God to hear us when we pray. We are his children, and he is always listening for us. We don’t need to try to appease God with a plethora of rituals meant to try and make him love us more. He is our Father.
This would have been one of the most scandalous things that Jesus taught the people that day. No one in the Old Testament—not Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, David, Elijah, or any others—called God “Father” in this way. But Jesus comes along and tells us that, through his death, burial, and resurrection, we are made children of the sovereign God who can rightly call him our Father. This is why Paul could write Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Just as a good father delights in giving good gifts to his child, so our Heavenly Father delights infinitely more in giving us good things in Christ.
So, how can we define prayer as children of God? In this way: Prayer is a relational expression that vocalizes our trust in our Heavenly Father. At the same time, just as a son speaking with his father learns to think, speak, and act like him, so speaking with our Heavenly Father will conform us into his image.
At the same time, prayer must be done wisely, according to God’s will, with an expectant faith and trust that he hears and answers his children in Christ, all for his glory alone. This is what praying as children of God looks like, and it is the way of prayer that God intended. Such prayers will be rewarded by our Heavenly Father.