Another reason why we so often feel inadequate when it comes to prayer is that we do not feel confident that we know how to pray. This is especially the case when it comes to praying in front of other people and is, thus, a big contributor to the long periods of silence that we have all experienced in our prayer meetings. We struggle to pray in front of others because we are afraid of what they might think; and one of the main reasons why we are afraid of what they might think is because we lack confidence in our ability to pray.
This is nothing for us as Christians to be ashamed about, because we know that Jesus died to set us free from all our guilt and shame. When the apostle Paul declares, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), he doesn’t intend to suggest that there is still a little condemnation remaining for Christians. “No condemnation” means no condemnation, which tell us that our failures in regard to prayer are not in a special category all by themselves but are instead part and parcel of what has already been forgiven in Christ. We need to remember that as we take up this issue.
But just because our failures in regard to prayer cannot condemn us, that doesn’t mean that we should accept those failures and live with them the rest of our lives without doing anything about them. Our love for the Lord and our gratitude for all that He is to us in Christ ought to push us to grow in our ability to pray and to do so for the rest of our lives. Knowing that His disciples would need help in growing in their ability to pray, Jesus explicitly provides it in Matthew 6:5-15. This week, we will look at 5 things that Jesus teaches us about how we are to pray from this passage. Today, we take up the first.
One of the things that often keeps us from praying in front of others is that we become overly concerned about using the right words. But the first thing Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:5-15 is that God is not primarily concerned about the words we use in prayer. He is far more concerned about our hearts.
Jesus says this beginning in v. 5: “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.” In saying this, Jesus is not condemning all forms of public prayer, as some have erroneously believed. Instead, Jesus is condemning our wrong motives in public prayer. When we pray in public, we are not to be like the hypocrites. They loved to pray in public places so that they could be seen by others. In other words, the motives of their hearts weren’t right.
Praying in front of others brings a greater challenge for us than praying in private does. It is easier to have the wrong motives by being overly concerned about what others are thinking. When we pray in private, no one is listening to what we are saying and the way we are saying it, except for God. We have an audience of one. When we pray in front of others, then, we will probably need to prepare our hearts in advance. We will need to remind ourselves that even though other people are listening, we still only have an audience of one. The more we pray in private, the easier it will be for us to pray in public, because the latter is simply an extension of the former. Praying in private trains us to pray in public without regard for whether or not we are being seen by others.
Jesus also emphasizes the heart in v. 7 as well: “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.” Here again, Jesus is not condemning long prayers, as some have erroneously believed. Jesus prayed some of the longest prayers we know of in the New Testament. See, for instance, Matthew 14:23-24, where Jesus prayed for at least 10 hours, and Luke 6:12, where Jesus prayed “all night.” No, Jesus isn’t condemning long prayers in Matthew 6:7. Instead, He is condemning prayer in which our hearts are not engaged. The Gentiles were “heaping up empty phrases” precisely because they thought that they would “be heard for their many words.” Note that they were “empty phrases.” In other words, their hearts were not engaged. Their prayers were stream-of-consciousness monologues. They honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him (Matt. 15:8).
When you and I pray in front of others, or by ourselves in private, we are not to be like the Gentiles. We are not to pray empty words but with our hearts engaged in what we are saying. This actually tells us a lot about the nature of prayer. It tells us that prayer is not simply talking to God. It is far more than that. It is better understood as something like pouring out our hearts to God (for more on this, see the first chapter of my book Persistent Prayer).
But this also tells us that prayer requires preparation. We need to remind ourselves of what we are doing, of the One in whose presence we are doing it, and of all that He has done for us in order to open the way for us to be doing it. We need to do these kinds of things to ensure that our hearts really are engaged in what we are doing. For me, this hasn’t always been a lengthy process. I have found that if I pause for a few moments before I pray to remind myself of these things, I can better engage my heart and avoid praying empty words and phrases.
Tomorrow we will look at the second point Jesus makes in Matthew 6:5-15, we are to pray with our minds.