These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.
We’re going to be looking at a slightly larger chunk of the Sermon on the Mount today, mainly because we looked at the Lord’s Prayer in detail earlier in the year.
Some preliminary comments before we get stuck in. As you’ll see, it is clear that Jesus simply expects his disciples to be prayerful people. He assumes it: ‘And when you pray…’ (v.5); ‘And when you pray…’ (v.7); ‘Pray then like this…’ (v.9). In a sense, there ought to be nothing more natural for a Christian than the desire to pray. That is not to say that they will find prayer easy, but that there is a God-given desire to connect with the Father through prayer.
Having said that, Jesus makes it clear that while all Christians will pray, not all prayer is Christian. Whether or not what you’re doing is ‘prayer’ in the true sense depends on some fundamental questions: Who do you think you’re praying to? What’s he like? How do you approach? How do you know he’ll listen? What kinds of prayer are acceptable? Why are you praying?
The most fundamental question that differentiates different kinds of prayer is this: Who is god to you? The word ‘god’ calls up vastly different ideas in different people. This is true of any name. If I say ‘Charlie’ you might think of old friends, cartoon characters, or French magazines. In the same way, when we speak about ‘god’ we’re not always talking about the same person.
And so, we soon realise that your theology (what you believe about God/god) shapes your practice, particularly when it comes to prayer.
In this section of the Sermon, as Jesus looks at some wrong ways to pray, and the right way to pray, his highest concern is to uncover the wrong ways to think about God, and the right way. That is how we need to read this section.
1. People-Pleasing Prayer
Jesus begins by going after the hypocrites again!
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. 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. (Matthew 6.5-6)
What’s going on here? And what kind of ‘god’ do these people believe in? Recall that this word ‘hypocrite’ was the word for a professional actor, who performed to the choir and the audience, and wore a mask — a vivid picture of a person whose religious devotion is for the benefit of other people and not God.
Such a person is basically a secret atheist, or at best a deist (someone who believes in God, but believes God is not involved in the world in any meaningful way). Why? Because beneath the performance of prayer, the reality is that their prayer is for people to overhear, not for God.
Jesus is putting his finger on the pressure that can exist in religious communities for people to fake it by being seen to be godly, even if they have no genuine faith. This kind of pressure exists in all the tribes we belong to. The way we dress, our humour, our career choices, our preference in entertainment: these are all shaped by (often unspoken) expectations because of our tribes. And this is no less true in religious matters. If a person belongs to a religious tribe, where credibility is gained by the appearance of godliness, it’s easy to fake it and become a hypocrite. This person is a secret atheist in that all of their so-called devotion is really for the benefit of men, and there is no real belief in God.
How could we discover this problem in ourselves? The answer is by examining the way we act in secret, when nobody is looking. Jesus tells us to pray in secret because ‘your Father who sees in secret will reward you’. And so the vital question is whether you believe that is true. If you do not, then your secret prayer life will be negligible to non-existent, if you do believe it, your secret prayer life will be rich.
And notice how he tells us to ‘go into your room’. He uses a word that often spoke of the storeroom; a windowless cupboard full of good stuff. It is only in secret (and thus genuine) prayer that we can be sure we have entered the storeroom of God’s good provision towards us.
2. Pointless Prayer
While some have no meaningful belief in God (the hypocrites) others believe in some kind of god, but their beliefs about him determine what kind of prayers they offer.
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. (Matthew 6.7-8)
These ‘empty phrases’ or ‘babbling’ speak of a number of things that Jesus had seen people do in prayer. Endless repetition of the same words, as though you could wear God down; praying for a long time purely because you think that the length of your prayer makes it more effective; mindless praying, in which you recite words you learned by heart, or read them off a sheet with no engagement, or pull out the same old phrases that have long-since lost any significance; or simply praying nonsense — prayers you don’t even understand (as when people pray in other languages they don’t know, like Latin or Arabic, or use phrases they heard at church but don’t understand). All of this is babbling.
The problem here is that prayer is being turned into a technique or mechanism to get what you want. And that indicates a profoundly flawed understanding of the God or god you’re praying to. If all you need is the right technique to get your desired results, then your god is little more than a cosmic vending machine.
Jesus puts his finger on this bad theology when he says, ‘for they think they will be heard for their many words’. Is God really so predictable that you can get what you want by speaking a certain number of words?
No. On the contrary, Jesus says ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’ He’s your Father. And he knows. And he knows what you need. And he knows what you need before you even asked. And yes, you still need to ask, but you do so with a deep understanding of his fatherhood.
3. Proper Prayer
Jesus knows the Father perfectly. And so when he talks about prayer, we are getting insider information of extraordinary value. What does he say?
Pray then like this:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6.9-15)
What does Jesus want us to know about the Father to help us pray rightly? I think there are a few big ideas we need to grasp.
First, your Father wants your mind on him above all. While we often think prayer is about bringing our needs to God (which it is) so often Biblical prayer is focussed primarily on God’s desires, God’s kingdom. And so here the first half of the prayer is all about God.
I believe that so many of our problems stem from our inability to see beyond the end of our own noses. We are so self-obsessed. We think about ourselves most of the time. But while you are not unimportant, you are not all-important either.
This prayer teaches us to lift our eyes and get aligned with what God is doing on a global scale. That is not to say that God isn’t interested in the tiniest details of our lives (like today’s bread) but rather that by looking up we will be changed when we start to see things from God’s perspective. (And note too that the prayer is corporate; we pray for ‘our’ needs, not ‘my’ needs, which also causes us to get over ourselves.)
Second, your Father wants you to approach him often, even daily. Jesus just assumes that his followers will make it a daily habit to pray. ‘Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts…’ — that is something you need to say every day. The Jews customarily prayed three times a day (following Daniel’s example).
Many of us might assume that a plan to pray every day smacks of legalism, and is rule-based rather than relational. We might say, ‘How can we speak to God as Father when we’re sticking to a daily schedule in prayer. It’s forced and artificial.’
I’d answer by reminding you that there are many things you consider important enough in life that you do them on a daily basis. You brush your teeth, wash, dress, eat, and sleep every day (most of you). And moreover, you do a whole bunch of things on a daily basis that are not at all important: checking Facebook and emails, watching TV, listening to music. How much more ought we to prioritise our relationship with the Father?
Besides, we also know that important relationships are worth being intentional about. There’s a big difference between saying to someone ‘We should get together some time’ (whilst thinking, ‘I hope I never see you again!’), and actually pulling out your diary and making a plan.
If you want to make prayer a priority, you have to make a plan in which you answer the questions: when? where? how long? what?
Third, your Father wants you to know he’s listening. I’m struck by how short and to-the-point this prayer is. Jesus is not into waffle.
We’re often tempted to be verbose and pad things out to make stuff seem impressive: our CVs, our essays or written proposals, and of course, how many books are made up of so much fluff and padding?
While it can be appropriate to pray at length (as when Jesus prayed all night before selecting his disciples) the assumption should always be that since God is listening, and since he won’t forget what I’m saying, I can be direct, to-the-point, and even short in my prayers.
As you grow in your prayer life your prayers will naturally lengthen, taking on more concerns. But it is far better you commit to praying briefly each day than that you build prayer up in your mind to be something harder than it is, and so never do it.
The Father is listening, he wants you to speak to him today, and he is going to help lift you up out of your circumstances to see with his own eyes.