Teach Us to Pray

Reading: Matthew 6.5-15
Do you have any childhood memories of seeing one of these shows where someone swallows a sword, breathes fire or is blindfolded and throws knives at someone? The big question is, "How does he do it?"

Then perhaps in adult life you see someone doing what you can't seem to manage. You haven't had a decent bite and here's this other fellow pulling in all the big ones. What's his secret? Or - ladies! - you hear this other lady telling about how she never uses a dress pattern - just lays out the material and cuts! It can be rather frightening, can't it?

The earthly life and ministry of Jesus was outstanding in every way. One of the secrets that his disciples noticed was the depth and intimacy of his prayer life. Thinking about what they heard and saw, they must have had a double question - how does he do it all? Answer: prayer. But that raises another question too - what is the secret of his praying?

One day Jesus was praying and this second question was just begging to be asked. So one of the disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples" (Luke 11.1).

In the major body of teaching which we call the Sermon on the Mount Jesus includes specific teaching on prayer (Matthew 6.5-15). And this doesn't surprise us at all.

How not to Pray

The contemporaries of Jesus did a great deal of praying. That is part of the background to the positive teaching of Jesus on "how to pray". The kind of praying they did illustrated so much "how not to pray".

There were many who wanted a reputation of being devout. Jesus called them "hypocrites" - our English comes from a Greek word used to refer to play-actors. They were making a show of prayer "to be seen by men".

But God pays no attention to the outward show - he looks on the heart. He knows when prayer is not directed to him!

It is possible to use all the correct formulae - all the right prayer-words - and still be like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable who prayed "about himself" (Luke 18.11 - some translations say he prayed with himself, and the footnote in the New International Version draws attention to other manuscripts which have him praying to himself.)

Such prayers may be very effective - in attracting attention - but "they have received their reward in full" (Matthew 6.5,6 - J.B. Phillips' paraphrase puts it, "Believe me, they have had all the reward they are going to get!").

We are reminded of the prophets of Baal in Elijah's time. They built an altar, prepared a sacrifice and "prayed to Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made". After some taunting from Elijah, "they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed… and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice" (1 Kings 18.26,28-29).

The idea of magic is to manipulate unseen forces to serve our own ends. Nothing could be further removed from Christian prayer. The secret of prayer has nothing to do with "babbling" ("a lot of meaningless words" in the Good News Bible) nor with the length of our prayers. That's a pagan idea and has nothing to do with true prayer (Matthew 6.7).

Have you ever felt intimidated about prayer? Someone else has been full of confidence and seemed to be able to pile all the nice right words together. You have been left with the feeling - I can't pray, not really!

Don't be discouraged! God looks on the heart.

How to Pray

Many years ago a man approaching me after a little country service and complained about my "monologue" in the service. He believed that corporate prayer is wrong, that the most a preacher should do is to suggest some subjects for prayer and leave a period of silence for the people to do the praying.

This is not true to the life of the early Christians. Before Pentecost, we read that "they joined together constantly in prayer" (Acts 1.14). And after Pentecost, one of their prayers is recorded for us (Acts 4.24-30).

The key place to pray is in your room and in secret (Matthew 6.6). All of our praying must be directed to God. Prayer in worship is meaningful when it expresses together the praise and petitions of those who individually and regularly meet in secret with their Father. Our prayer affirms our conviction that God hears. It isn't for the benefit of someone else's ears, but for God himself.

Of course, when Jesus says that we are not to "babble" or "use a lot of meaningless words" in our praying (what the King James version called "vain repetitions"), he still means us to pray with earnestness. We notice him saying later in the Sermon on the Mount, "Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7.6).

Sometimes we pray and receive just on the asking. On other occasions we need to persist in prayer - seeking and knocking. We think of the example of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Three times he prayed for the cup of suffering to be taken from him. Three times he committed himself - "Your will be done" (Matthew 26.36-46).

Our prayer needs to be an expression of our trust in our Father who knows our needs and delights to supply them in response to our prayer of faith.

A Model Prayer

It has been suggested that what we call "the Lord's Prayer" should really be called "the disciples' prayer". Jesus himself never had to pray for forgiveness - he was without sin. Jesus gave this prayer to his disciples as a model prayer - "This is how you should pray..."

Obviously Jesus didn't mean us to use these words in a slavish, mechanical way. That would directly contradict what he has just taught about how not to pray. A lady who once said to me, "I always pray the Lord's Prayer every day." It was almost as if she was wearing a lucky charm, as if the words themselves would guarantee her well-being! Primarily, Jesus is teaching us, not what to pray, but how to pray.

This prayer, of course, gathers up in a concise manner the various things for which we should pray. For this reason, Christians have used it for centuries as a corporate expression of prayer - an appropriate practice that will surely continue.

I commend to you that, in your room alone with the Lord, you pray this prayer slowly, reflecting on each phrase, and above all with the spirit of the disciples - "Lord, teach us to pray!"

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 15 July 2001
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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