If you wanted someone to instruct you in golf or tennis, wouldn’t you choose someone who is good at golf and tennis? The same goes for prayer. If you want a better prayer life, why not go to someone who excelled in the ministry of prayer? Why not go to Jesus?
No nation ever had a higher ideal of prayer than the Jews had; and no religion ever ranked prayer higher in the scale of priorities than the Jews did. “Great is prayer,” said the Rabbis, “greater than all good works.” One of the loveliest things that was ever said about family worship is the Rabbinic saying, “He who prays within his house surrounds it with a wall that is stronger than iron.” The only regret of the Rabbis was that it was not possible to pray all day long.
Some suggest these principles for our praying: Do not pray for easy lives, Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, Pray for powers equal to your task. Don’t ask God for what you think is good; ask him for what He thinks is good for you. Don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty. Each time you pray, fervently plea, “Lord, make me worthy to associate with thee.”
Simple instructions: Be yourself. Be natural before God. Do not pretend to emotions you do not feel. Tell him whatever is on your heart and mind with whatever words are most natural to you. You do not have to speak to him in “religious” language about “spiritual” matters only . . . Speak as naturally and as easily as you would to a friend, since God is just that. . . . This natural expression of yourself at the outset is the guarantee that you can go on to a creative, free, and mature relationship with God.
Certain faults had crept into the Jewish habits of prayer. It is to be noted that these faults are by no means peculiar to Jewish ideas of prayer; they can and do occur anywhere. And it is to be noted that they could only occur in a community where prayer was taken with the greatest seriousness. They are not the faults of neglect; they are the faults of misguided devotion.
Prayer tended to become formalized. There were two things the daily use of which was prescribed for every Jew.
The first was the Shema, which consists of three short passages of scripture—Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41. Shema is the imperative of the Hebrew word to hear, and the Shema takes its name from the verse which was the essence and center of the whole matter: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.”
The full Shema had to be recited by every Jew every morning and every evening. It had to be said as early as possible. It had to be said as soon as the light was strong enough to enable a man to distinguish between blue and white, or, as Rabbi Eliezer said, between blue and green. In any event it had to be said before the third hour, that is, 9 a.m., and in the evening it had to be said before 9 p.m. If the last possible moment for the saying of the Shema had come, no matter where a man found himself, at home, in the street, at work, in the synagogue, He must stop and say it.
There were many who loved the Shema, and who repeated it with reverence and adoration and love; but the Shema had every chance of becoming a vain repetition, which men mumbled through like some spell or incantation.
The second thing which every Jew must daily repeat was called the Shemoneh ‘esreh, which means The Eighteen. It consisted of eighteen prayers, and was, and still is, an essential part of the synagogue service. In time the prayers became nineteen, but the old name remains. Most of these prayers are quite short, and nearly all of them are very lovely.
The twelfth runs: “Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be showed upon the upright, the humble, the elders of they people Israel, and the rest of its teachers; be favorable to the pious strangers amongst us, and to us all. Give thou a good reward to those who sincerely trust in thy name, that our lot may be case among them in the world to come, that our hope be not deceived. Praised by thou, O Lord, who art the hope and confidence of the faithful.”
The fifth runs: “Bring us back to thy law, O our Father; bring us back, O king, to thy service; bring us back to thee by true repentance. Praised by thou, O Lord, who dost accept our repentance.
Further, the Jewish liturgy supplied stated prayers for all occasions. There was hardly an event or a sight in life which had not its stated formula of prayer. There was prayer before and after each meal; there were prayers in connection with the light, the fire, the lightning, on seeing the new moon, comets, rain, tempest, at the sight of the sea, lakes, rivers, on receiving good news, on using new furniture, on entering or leaving a city. Everything had its prayer. Clearly there is something infinitely lovely here. It was the intention that every happening if life should be brought into the presence of God.
But just because the prayers were so meticulously prescribed and stated, the whole system lent itself to formalism, and the danger was for the prayers to slip off the tongue with very little meaning. The great Rabbis knew that and tried to guard against it. “If a man,” they said, “says his prayers, as if to get through a set task, that is no prayer.” “Do not look on prayer as a formal duty, but as an act of humility by which to obtain the mercy of God.”
Still further, the devout Jew had set times for prayer. The hours were the third, the sixth and the ninth hours, that is, 9 a.m., 12 midday and 3 p.m. In whatever place a man found himself he was bound to pray. Clearly he might be genuinely remembering God, or he might be carrying out an habitual formality.
The final fault which Jesus found with certain Jews was that they prayed to be seen of men. The Jewish system of prayer made ostentation very easy. The Jew prayed standing, with hands stretched out, palms upwards, and with head bowed. Prayer had to be said at 9 a.m., 12 midday, and 3 p.m. It had to be said wherever a man might be, and it was easy for a man to make sure that at these hours he was at a busy street corner, or in a crowded city square, so that all the world might see with what devotion he prayed. It was easy for a man to halt on the top step of the entrance to the synagogue, and there pray lengthily and demonstratively, so that all men might admire his exceptional piety. It was easy to put on an act of prayer which all the world might see.
Jesus develops two basic kinds of prayer. The first is “showcase prayer” by which the person praying actually draws attention to himself. He wants to be known as spiritual and holy. His religion gives him status, and by public prayer, he maintains and feeds it.
The second kind of prayer is “relational prayer.” This is prayer that seeks time with the Father. Jesus, for teaching purposes, draws a distinct line between the two, but we must acknowledge that most people will fall somewhere between the two extremes. It is also important to understand that no one can read the mind and intentions of another heart. What might seem to be the height of arrogance may only reflect upbringing. Or gentle, quiet prayers may come from one who has no private prayer life at all. Jesus’ instructions are for us to know and personally apply His words and to let the Holy Spirit guide and train our hearts in these matters.
There are, however, some warning signs to which we might want to pay attention.
- Do I have an “I am speaking to God” voice? This may be a matter of upbringing. Nevertheless, none is needed, and such a change in voice can draw attention to the one praying—unless one is in an environment that expects it, in which case not changing the voice can draw attention.
- Elegant words and lots of them. This may be a matter of gifting and natural oratory, but again none are needed.
- Personal agenda. It’s hard to excuse this one. You pray according to what you want done and what others need to do to help it along.
- “Please God. Help Jane resist the temptation to keep seeing that guy.” Such public prayers are only fruitful if Jane is there and has asked for intercession on that subject.
- Public prayer of any kind without a private prayer life. It is a given that if you are not speaking to the Father when you are alone, there is no good speaking to Him publicly.
The rewards of relational prayer is that it can:
- Direct the heart
- Receive answers and close or open doors
- Strengthen the character and spirit
- Increase faith and spiritual gifting
- Bring a deeper sense of the Father’s presence and care
He insists that all true prayer must be offered to God. Matthew 6:1-6 (ESV)
1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
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. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
6 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.
Prayer time is not a time to try to impress people, but to communicate with God. If we talk to be heard by men, they will hear, but God will not.
He insists that we must always remember that the God to whom we pray is a God of love who is more ready to answer than we are to pray. His gifts and his grace have not to be unwillingly extracted from him. We do not come to a God who has to be coaxed, or pestered, or battered into answering our prayers. We come to one whose one wish is to give. When we remember that, it is surely sufficient to go to God with the sigh of desire in our hearts, and on our lips the words, “Thy will be done.”
Prayer is measured by sincerity not multiplication of words Matthew 6:7-8 (ESV)
7 “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.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
There was a way in which Jewish prayer used repetition. There was an attempt to pile up every possible title and adjective in the address of the prayer to God. One famous prayer begins: “Blessed, praised, and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, magnified and lauded by the name of the Holy One.”
This is not a condemnation of persistence. Later in the sermon, Jesus will recommend persistence. It is condemning empty repetition. It is condemning the notion that the best prayers are the longest prayers.
Prayer should follow Jesus’ pattern, not our preferences Matthew 6:9-13 (ESV)
9 Pray then like this: “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 this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Person…Praise should always come first.
Respect for God’s names. Commitment to God’s kingdom. Submission to God’s will.
We must note the order of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. The first three petitions have to do with God and with the glory of God; the second three petitions have to do with our needs and our necessities.
That is to say, God is first given his supreme place, and then, and only then, we turn to ourselves and our needs and desires. It is only when God is given his proper place that all other things fall into their proper places. Prayer must never be an attempt to bend the will of God to our desires; prayer ought always to be an attempt to submit our wills to the will of God.
The second part of the prayer, the part which deals with our needs and our necessities, is a marvelously wrought unity. It deals with the three essential needs of man, and the three spheres of time within which man moves.
- First, it asks for bread, for that which is necessary for the maintenance of life, and thereby brings the needs of the present to the throne of God.
- Second, it asks for forgiveness and thereby brings the past into the presence of God.
- Third, it asks for help in temptation and thereby commits all the future into the hands of God.
- In these three brief petitions, we are taught to lay the present, the past, and the future before the footstool of the grace of God.
It is also a prayer which brings the whole of God to our lives.
- When we ask for bread to sustain our earthly lives, that request immediately directs our thoughts to God the Father, the Creator and the Sustainer of all life.
- When we ask for forgiveness, that request immediately directs our thoughts to God the Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer.
- When we ask for help for future temptation, that request immediately directs our thoughts to God the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Strengthener, the Illuminator, the Guide and the Guardian of our way.
Prayer should affect our behavior, not just our mood Matthew 6:14 (ESV)
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,
Prayer may make us feel better. While that is welcome, it is not all there is to our prayer life.
Prayer will affect the way we relate to other people. If we have received forgiveness from God, it will be difficult not to extend it to others. Something is seriously wrong if we cannot do this.
He prayed for strength that he might achieve; He was made weak that he might obey.
He prayed for health that he might do greater things; He was given infirmity that he might do better things.
He prayed for riches that he might be happy; He was given poverty that he might be wise.
He prayed for power that he might have the praise of men; He was given weakness that he might feel the need of God.
He prayed for all things that he might enjoy life; He was given life that he might enjoy all thingsHe received nothing that he asked for—but all that he hoped for.
He who fails to pray does not cheat God. He cheats himself.
I cannot say our if religion has no room for others and their needs.
I cannot say Father if I do not demonstrate this relationship in my daily living.
I cannot say who art in heaven if all my interests and pursuits are on earthly things.
I cannot say hallowed be thy name if I, who am called by his name, am not holy.
I cannot say thy kingdom come if I am unwilling to give up my own sovereignty and accept the righteous reign of God.
I cannot say thy will be done if I am unwilling or resentful of having it in my life.
I cannot say in earth as it is in heaven unless I am truly ready to give myself to his service here and now.
I cannot say give us this day our daily bread without expending honest effort for it or by ignoring the genuine needs of my fellowmen.
I cannot say forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us if I continue to harbor a grudge against anyone.
I cannot say lead us not into temptation if I deliberately choose to remain in a situation where I am likely to be tempted.
I cannot say deliver us from evil if I am not prepared to fight in the spiritual realm with the weapon of prayer.
I cannot say thine is the kingdom if I do not give the King the disciplined obedience of a loyal subject.
I cannot say thine is the power if I fear what my neighbors may say or do.
I cannot say thine is the glory if I am seeking my own glory first.
I cannot say forever if I am too anxious about each day’s affairs.
I cannot say amen unless I honestly say, “Cost what it may, this is my prayer.”
I need to stop talking about prayer—and pray.