Jesus started a prayer revolution. He taught His disciples a revolutionary prayer method, which was far different than any of the forms of prayer in His day. People were accustomed to praying the longest, fanciest prayers, and making those prayers known to as many people as possible. Praying in public became an art and a skill to be admired. The better the prayer, the more spiritual a person was viewed to be. Does this sound familiar? Oh yeah, we still do this today! Hmm…maybe we should take a lesson or two from Jesus’ prayer model.
Jesus gave some remarkable instructions about prayer, which are recorded particularly well in the book of Matthew. Let’s study Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:5-7 as our foundational Scripture:
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. Assuredly, they have their reward. 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. 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.
Out of this passage, I can discern four major, paradigm-shifting truths regarding prayer. Here they are: (1) prayer is not a matter of if, but when; (2) prayer is not a matter of show; (3) eternal rewards hinge upon our prayer lives; and (4) fancy prayers expend useless energy.
First, we must take note of the fact that Jesus repeatedly said, “When you pray,” not “If you pray.” It seems like an obvious conclusion, but Jesus simply did not even consider a prayer-less life as an option for His followers. His teaching was not intended on convincing His followers that they should pray, but upon showing His followers how they should pray. It’s a small detail, but a very important detail. Prayer is not an optional part of the Christian life; it is mandatory. Now, am I saying that if you don’t pray, you won’t get into heaven? Of course not. Don’t put words into my mouth that I’m not saying. But then again, if you don’t talk to God through prayer now, why would you talk to Him face-to-face then? It’s something to think about…
Second, it is absolutely crucial that we get it through our heads that prayer is not for show or public display. This does not mean that we should never pray in public. On the contrary, public prayer is a very valid form of prayer and one that should be utilized frequently in corporate settings. So, if corporate prayer is important, how should we go about it without being showy? The answer is simple, but the process is hard: We must check our hearts. When you pray, whom are you formulating your words for? Your audience or God? Are you focused on Him or on what you think other people want to hear? As much as I would like to say that I don’t pray for show, I would be lying. I definitely catch myself doing this all the time. But Jesus said that for every showy prayer we pray, we receive an earthly reward rather than an eternal reward.
This brings me to my next point: Eternal rewards hinge upon our prayer lives. This is a remarkable and astounding aspect of theology. Every time we receive earthly glory for the prayers we pray, we discredit ourselves from heavenly rewards that could have been held for us. It’s mind-blowing to think that my prayer life could earn me rewards in heaven, but that is exactly what Jesus said in verses 5 and 6. The real question is: Do we want our reward now or later? The catch is that the later rewards are far superior to the rewards we would receive now. Obviously, we shouldn’t pray just for the rewards we can receive from doing so. But Jesus obviously wanted us to know about the rewards; otherwise, He wouldn’t have mentioned them. When you pray, pray with eternity in mind. Earthly rewards of recognition, credit, glory, and honor just aren’t worth it in light of eternity.
Finally, when we pray, we must not use repetitions and a multiplicity of words. God knows our hearts, and it is He who instructed us to “ask and keep on asking,” as the Amplified Version of Luke 11:9 says. Yet, there is a difference between persistent repetition of prayers and vain repetition of words just to make our prayers longer. What’s the point? God doesn’t need to hear our long prayers, for Matthew 6:8b says, “Your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” If you have enough to say to God to fill an hour of prayer, great! But don’t just repeat yourself in order to fill the time so you can feel good about spending an hour in prayer. It would be better to pray short prayers and then listen to God and reflect for the rest of the hour rather than filling the whole time with your pointless chatter.
It’s amazing how distorted our idea of prayer has become over the years. Hopefully, this has helped to lay some groundwork for getting back to the basics of prayer. Prayer has become far too complicated in this day and age. We need to simplify. Jesus never intended for it to be complicated. Perhaps the biggest thing for all of us to remember is that we do not need to impress God with our prayers. He doesn’t answer prayers based upon length, structure, of formality. Rather, He looks at our hearts and answers based on our faith, our motives, and our alignment with His will!