Let Us Pray!
Prayer is one of the most important and one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines. One reason prayer is difficult is because we must pause, be still, and focus. Another challenging obstacle to prayer is we don’t feel as though we’re doing anything productive when we pray.
Another reason prayer is difficult is because we often don’t know how to pray. Thankfully, Jesus, the perfect teacher and a model prayer warrior, teaches us how to pray. I’ll limit my comments to Jesus’ model prayer in Matt. 6:5-15.
In Matthew 6, Jesus continues to discuss how citizens of the kingdom of Heaven should live. Basically, as Christ-followers and members of the kingdom of heaven, we should perform righteous deeds that flow from a heart totally devoted to Jesus Christ in order to please God, not man. Jesus specifically discusses the manner by which we, his disciples, should perform 3 specific righteous acts: helping the poor, prayer, and fasting.
In verse 1, Jesus commands us not to perform our righteousness before men to receive honor from them. The word righteousness refers to ethical righteousness. In Matt. 5:20, Jesus stated that unless our righteousness goes beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. In vv. 21-48, Jesus offered practical examples of this. First, based on Matthew 1-4, we acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of Jews and Gentiles, and the Son of God. Second, based on Matt. 5:21-48, we follow Jesus with an undivided heart by striving to live up to his high ethical standards until we die.
In 6:1-18, Jesus instructs us how to live as citizens of the kingdom in a way that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees by discussing the righteous acts of helping the poor, prayer, and fasting. He contrasts the motives by which his disciples should help the poor, pray, and fast with the motives of the hypocrites, a title which is most certainly a cryptic reference to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew’s gospel (notice vv. 2, 5, 16).
Jesus commands us not to pray like Gentiles (pagans). By doing this, he subtly asserts that the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees is equivalent to the unbelief of the pagan Gentiles, because both the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees who reject Jesus and the pagan Gentiles were in unbelief and outside of the kingdom of Heaven (notice vv. 5, 7). Furthermore, the hypocrites perform their righteous deeds to be seen by men (notice vv. 1, 2, 5, 16) so that they would receive their reward of social honor from men (notice vv. 2, 5, 16).
But Jesus wants his disciples to perform their righteous deeds because of their transformed hearts in the presence of the audience of God, so that we would receive honor from God (notice vv. 1, 3, 4, 6, 17-18). The reward/honor that we will receive from God if we give Jesus our hearts and perform our righteous deeds to glorify him alone is the kingdom of heaven (e.g. 5:20; 5:3-11; 7:21-23). We should help the poor (vv. 1-4), pray (vv. 5-15), and fast (16-18) to receive honor from God instead of from men.
Now that I’ve placed Jesus’ model prayer in its context, below I highlight Jesus’ example of the kinds of things that we should include in our prayers. Keep in mind that Jesus’ example prayer is not exhaustive, but it is simply a model to teach us how to pray. I don’t think he’s saying we should simply repeat the words of this prayer, but rather we should pray like this. One reason I think this seems right is because Jesus didn’t repeat this prayer when he prays elsewhere in the gospel of Matthew.
The Righteous Act of Prayer (Matt. 6:5-15)
- Public prayer is important. But don’t publicly pray to draw attention to yourselves like the hypocrites (v. 5). But earnestly seek your heavenly Father in private (v. 6). Don’t pray like the Gentiles (pagans) by uttering meaningless, repetitive formulas by which you attempt to manipulate God (v. 7)—pagans do that. God knows what you need before you ask (8).
- Acknowledge God as your “Heavenly” Father (v. 9).
- Acknowledge God as your “holy” Heavenly Father (v. 9).
- Pray for God’s kingdom to come from heaven to earth (v. 10). In part, this means we pray for God’s justice.
- Pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (v. 10).
- Ask God to provide for your every need (v. 11).
- Ask God to forgive your sins (v. 12). In v. 14, Matthew introduces a condition to the statement. The verse likely connects with vv. 12-13 because vv. 12-13 talk about forgiveness of sins and protection from evil temptation that leads us to sin. If we don’t forgive the sins of others when they transgress against us, God will not forgive us of our sins (14-15; 18:35). A forgiven person is a forgiving person!
Along with v. 12, this part of the prayer reminds us we are sinners. As kingdom citizens, we are obligated to ask God for his forgiveness of our sins and we are obligated to forgive others just as God forgives us (e.g. 5:43-48). To state the point another way, our forgiveness of others when they sin against us, proves that God has forgiven us, that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and will serve as a reason for which he will continue to forgive us as we ask him to do so.
- Ask God to protect you from the devil and not to lead you into temptation (v. 13).
- Develop an intentional prayer life. Create a plan, find a place, and spend time daily interceding before the Lord. If we’re going to do this well, we must work/plan/be intentional about doing this. We should pray without ceasing. Prayer should be like breathing for a Christian. It should be a natural part of our Christian existence. However, we must daily spend intentional periods of prayer by ourselves in our prayer closets in the presence of the Lord without the distractions of others.
My best seasons of prayer are normally early in the mornings before my family wakes up. For others, the best time to pray for long periods of time might be at another time of the day. My point is that we should spend time bearing our souls to him in a private place without interruption.
It is great to pray with your kids and with your spouses. In fact, I highly encourage families to participate regularly together in family devotions and worship in the home that include seasons of prayer together. However, we must also spend time privately by ourselves seeking God’s face, because when we pray in front of people, we may not always be honest before the Lord. But we might be tempted to impress.
And we will not feel comfortable confessing certain sins to the Lord in front of people. I feel comfortable confessing some sins to the Lord in front of my wife, but I don’t want my wife to hear me bearing my soul to the Lord as I present to him openly and uncensored on the sins of my heart.
- Spend intentional time praying together as a family.
- Participate in congregational prayer in our churches. I’m always puzzled why certain churches no longer have prayer meetings or congregational periods of prayer during the major worship gathering.
- If you need help thinking through how to pray, talk with your pastors. But the best guide for how to pray is the bible. Read Jesus’ prayers and Paul’s prayers. Contextualize them and pray for the kinds of things for which they pray.
- Practice personal forgiveness with your fellow-man, so that God will forgive you when you ask him.