“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. 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. 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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
(Matthew 6:5-8 ESV)
Yesterday Jesus addressed giving as the first example of how our behavior should not be for the sake of receiving praise from other people. Today He addresses our motivation when it comes to prayer.
In Jesus’ day prayer had become nothing more than repetitious words recited from memory at prescribed times of day and in prescribed places. For example, a faithful Jew would recite the Shema three times a day. This was composed of selected verses from the Old Testament which were prayed verbatim.
Many faiths still have the same idea of prayer today. The Catholic church has its Hail Mary, Our Father, and other prayers. It seems that those who recite them think they are the real-life, spiritual equivalent of “Abracadabra” – that just by saying them they somehow have power and meaning. Jesus denounces such words as empty phrases.
He also condemns overly long prayers or repeated prayers (heaping up… many words), such as praying the rosary. We are not to not be like people who do this.
Prayer is not meant to convince God to do something He wouldn’t otherwise do. Nor is it meant to inform God of something He doesn’t already know. God knows what [we] need before [we] ask Him. Reciting the same words doesn’t impress or move God. But such is not the purpose of prayer. Nor is the purpose of prayer to impress people (seen by others).
The proper approach to prayer is for it to be done in secret. That is, we should get away from those things that might distract us or tempt us to show off. Jesus often went to secluded places to pray [Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16]. But He also prayed in public at times, demonstrating that corporate prayer (in church or a small group, for example) is perfectly fine. It all comes down to intent.
The purpose of prayer is to bring our requests to God because we are aware of our inability to deal with them and because we acknowledge that God can, and will, deal with them. There is no magic formula for this. We are to just tell God what is on our heart. We are to converse with Him just like we’d converse with a good friend.
When we simply recite the same words over and over, they have no meaning. We are just going through the motions thinking that our outward behavior will count for something. But as Jesus has been teaching us over the past several days, it does not. It is our hearts that matter.
When we pray correctly we are revealing a heart that is humble and an attitude that displays confidence in God.
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