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Trinity Assembly of God Midlothian

The Right Way to Pray

Have you ever struggled to pray?

Have you ever wondered if you were doing it the right way?

Have you ever worried if you were using the right words?

Have you ever doubted that you really meant what you were saying?

Have you ever deliberated about whether prayer matters?

Have you ever hoped that prayer could make a difference?

 If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then this message is for you this morning. If you answered “no” to all those questions, please write a book so the rest of us can learn the secret. Just kidding…

          As we continue our series through the Sermon on the Mount, we come to one of the most familiar portions of Jesus’ longest recorded teaching. And because this next section is so familiar, we need to take a careful look at it without assuming we already know everything there is to know. Let’s go ahead and read this section.

Matthew 6:5–15 (NIV84)  

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,

10 your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

11 Give us today our daily bread.

12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’

14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

As we delve into this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, I need to point out again that Matthew 6:1 is an introduction to Matthew 6:2-18, so we need to spend some time with it before looking at verses 5-15.

In verse one Jesus said, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

From this verse, we see that righteousness—being right with God—isn’t just an internal personal reality. Being right with God also affects what we do outwardly. Jesus uses this introduction to set up three things his followers will do: give, pray, and fast.

He lays the ground rules before addressing any of the activities individually. Religious activity should never be done to get attention or recognition from other people. The only attention we seek is God’s. Though this introduction applies to giving, fasting, and praying, I think we can safely say that these are representative and that the ground rules also apply to all other kinds of religious activity.

Having laid that groundwork, let’s get back to verses 5-15. As we do so, I want you to remember this phrase: There’s a right way to pray and there’s no right way to pray. What does that mean? Let’s check it out.

          In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers that there is a right way to pray…but he does so in a negative fashion. I want to show you the right way to pray by giving you three negative statements. I’ll give you all three and then we’ll go back and look at each one individually.

  • #1 – Don’t pray like hypocrites.
  • #2 – Don’t pray like pagans.
  • #3 – Don’t ask God to forgive you if you have no intention of forgiving others.

#1 – Don’t pray like hypocrites.

          We looked at the word hypocrite two weeks ago when we talked about giving. Let me refresh your memory if you were here for that message or share it for the first time if you weren’t here.

Dictionary dot com has two definition entries for hypocrite[1]:

  • a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, or principles, that he or she does not actually possess.
  • A person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.

 Now, we can easily transport these definitions back to Jesus’ day. This was his assessment of religious people who turned prayer into performance art to get attention. They cared more about their reputations than they cared about honestly communicating with God. Their actions were bathed in selfishness, not humility.

While we can easily transport these definitions back in time, I find fascinating to explore the word hypocrite from a first-century perspective. In classical Greek, the hypocrite was first an orator and then an actor. The word came to be applied to anybody who treated the world as a stage on which he played a part. [The hypocrite] laid aside his true identity and assumed a false one….impersonating somebody else.[2]

In Jesus’ eyes, these religious hypocrites were acting like they were genuinely praying and genuinely trying to connect with God when, in actuality, “the humble pray-er” was a part being played when they were on stage and the theater was full.

Religious people did this then…and I’m sure there are religious people who do it today. But Jesus said his followers are not to be like that. He said his followers are to be different. He said we are to be different. What did he mean?

 He was very clear with the meaning—don’t pray so that you can be seen and heard and heard by people. Pray so that you will be seen and heard by God. He went so far as to say that if you must, don’t pray in front of people at all. Pray in a secret place where it’s only you and God.

Prayer is never meant to be a public spectacle. It is sacred communication between fallen people and a holy God. It is not an art form to be paraded about. It is a discipline to be cultivated.

The right way to pray means not praying for attention like hypocrites do. It also means…

 #2 – Don’t pray like pagans.

          In biblical terms, a  pagan is anyone who worships a god or gods other than the God of the Bible.[3] This may seem like a foreign concept to some of us but in our country, there are folks who can be classified as pagan according to this definition. The “Religious Landscape Study” by the Pew Research Center, found that…

  • 6% of Americans belong to some branch of Christianity (although I dispute some of the groups they list as Christian)
  • 9% of Americans belong to non-Christian faiths
  • 8% of Americans are classified as “nones” meaning they claim no religious affiliation at all.

If we combine the biblical definition of pagan with these statistics, then nearly 1 in 17 Americans is pagan and prays to a false god or false gods. Now, I have no idea what their prayer may be like. But Jesus knew what prayer was like for pagans in his day and he said his followers were not to babble in prayer like they did. Pagans used as many names of the god/gods they were praying to as possible, hoping at least one would be effective. They also reminded a god of favors owed, seeking an answer on contractual grounds.[4]

Commentator Craig Blomberg points out that it’s highly ironic that the Lord’s Prayer has come to be repeated mechanically in many Christian traditions with the belief that frequent repetition develops spirituality.[5] It doesn’t…because prayer is not a thoughtless exercise to be performed. It is a discipline to be developed.

          So, the right way to pray means not praying for attention like hypocrites do and not babbling on mindlessly like pagans as if repetition alone will get God’s attention. It also means…

#3 – Don’t ask God to forgive you if you have no intention of forgiving others.

          In verses 14-15, Jesus said, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

          If we’re not careful with these words, we can twist them to mean that God will take away our salvation if we do not forgive other people. A better understanding is that those who have no intention of forgiving others probably are not worried about God forgiving them.

          In the model prayer Jesus provided, he indicated that requests for forgiveness should be a regular part of our praying. However, there’s no use asking God to forgive us if we’ve already decided in our hearts not to forgive others. I love the way commentator Leon Morris explains this part: Jesus is saying that to fail to forgive others is to demonstrate that one has not felt the saving touch of God.[6] In other words, if you’ve been forgiven, it will be natural for you then to forgive.

          There is a right way to pray:

#1 – not like hypocrites

#2 – not like pagans

#3 – not with an unforgiving spirit

          Let me also tell you that there is no right way to pray. Instead of praying to get attention from people, mindlessly babbling to earn God’s attention, or refusing to forgive others, the most important thing about prayer is the attitude of the heart.

          As there are three negative things that characterize the right way to pray, there are three positive things that characterize the right way to pray:

#1 – pray simply

#2 – pray honestly

#3 – pray directly

          Jesus gave an example of how to do that in what is commonly known as the Lord’s prayer. It would probably be better described as the model prayer but we’re not going to change the name.

          This prayer is beautiful in its simplicity, honesty, and directness. It is simple because it is focused. It is honest because it recognizes our fallenness—that we are prone to give in to temptation and might lean toward unforgiveness. It is direct because Jesus taught us to call God "father." Just as children are wired to ask parents for what they want and occasionally what they need, as God’s children, we are invited to approach him the same way because he’s a father who already knows what we need and is just waiting for us to declare our dependence on him.[7]

          There is a right way to pray and there is no right way to pray.

  • It doesn’t matter if we sit, stand, kneel, lie, or walk.
  • It doesn’t matter if we’re verbal or nonverbal.
  • It doesn’t matter if we’re finely skilled in the nuances of systematic theology or new to Christ’s family.
  • It doesn’t matter if we’re young or old.
  • It doesn’t matter if we struggle to pray.
  • It doesn’t matter if we wonder if we’re doing it the right way.
  • It doesn’t matter if we worry about using the right words.
  • It doesn’t matter if we sometimes doubt what we’re saying.
  • It doesn’t matter if we sometimes deliberate about whether prayer matters.
  • It doesn’t matter if we sometimes have only the slightest hope that prayer will make a difference.

What matters is the attitude of our hearts when we pray.

          Jesus gave us a model prayer—the Lord’s Prayer. We can thoughtfully recite it, or we can use it as an outline because there’s a right way to pray and there’s no right way to pray. The important part is praying…and leaving the results to God.

Challenge

I want to challenge you to pray every day between now and next Sunday. For some of you, this challenge means you’ll simply continue a habit that is already part of your life. For others, this will be a new thing.

If it’s a new thing, why not use the Lord’s prayer as an outline. We have a handout for you that will help you do just that. There are enough to go around so everyone can have one.

 

[1] Hypocrite. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/hypocrite (accessed: January 4, 2018).

[2] Stott, John. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (p. 129). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Brand, C., Draper, C., England, A., Bond, S., Clendenen, E. R., & Butler, T. C. (Eds.). (2003). Pagans. In Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 1236). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[4] Keener, C. S. (1997). Matthew (Vol. 1, Mt 6:7). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[5] Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 118). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[6] Morris, L. (1992). The Gospel according to Matthew (p. 149). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press.

[7] Keener, C. S. (1997). Matthew (Vol. 1, Mt 6:7). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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