The great British preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote: “Prayer is beyond any question the highest activity of the human soul. Man is at his greatest and highest when, upon his knees, he comes face to face with God.”
(SOTM, p. 45)
And indeed, prayer CAN be THE single most important thing you can do in a day. I say it CAN be — IF you approach it rightly! But at worst it can be a total waste of time, if you are doing it the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons. That’s a big “swing”, isn’t it — either the best thing you can do, or a total waste of time!
The bottom line is: it is important that we get prayer right. As we saw last Sunday, the basic topic Jesus is addressing in the first half of Matthew 6 is hypocrisy; and He gives examples of it in our giving, praying, and fasting. But as He addresses hypocrisy in praying, He knows that prayer is so important, that He takes a few moments to give us some principles on how to pray, and then He gives us an outline to help us pray for the right things. So we are going to follow along with Him, and take a couple of weeks here to look at the “principles of prayer” that Jesus gives us here this week, and then after David Burleson shares about Burke United Christian Ministries next Sunday, the following Sunday we will review the Model Prayer Jesus gave us in :9-13, and how using it as an outline for our prayers can revolutionize our prayer life.
So for this morning, let’s look at some of the principles Jesus gave us to help us with this vital activity of prayer:
I. Prayer Involves Priority Time
Prayer is primarily to be time we spend alone with God. We saw last week that there are times when we can pray publicly, with others. But our public prayer should be just “the tip of the iceberg.” MOST of our praying should be done in private, when it is just us, and God alone.
Jesus said here: “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
Notice that the way that Jesus describes prayer here, involves some EFFORT: “go into your inner room, close your door …”. It takes some planning, some preparation, to get alone and spend that time with God. But it is vital that we make it a priority to do so.
Jesus Himself went to GREAT lengths to have time alone with the Father. I mentioned Mark 1:35 last week, where it says that following a day of busy ministry, in which people were lined up outside the door of the house where He staying, until late at night; but Mark 1:35 says “In the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” He had to go to some extremes to “get away” from everyone so that He could pray by Himself — He had to get up before morning, He had to leave the crowded house; He had to go “away to a secluded place” — but He DID all those things, because He knew that is what it took. He knew He had to have that time alone with the Father.
Everyone who has a strong fellowship with God, and who is used by God in a great way, makes time to spend with Him alone in prayer like that.
Hudson Taylor was the great missionary to China in the last part of the 1800’s, and he founded the Inland China Mission whose work has touched that nation to this day. His children wrote a book about his life, called “Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret.” I just finished reading it a week or so ago. In it they wrote, among other things, about Hudson Taylor’s commitment to daily prayer with God:
“It was not easy for Mr. Taylor, in his changeful (busy) life, to make time for prayer and Bible study, but he knew that it was vital. Well do the writers (his children) remember traveling with him month after month in northern China, by cart and wheelbarrow, with the poorest of inns at night. Often with only one large room for coolies and travelers alike, they would screen off a corner for their father and another for themselves, with curtains of some sort; and then, after sleep at last had brought a measure of quiet, they would hear a match struck and see the flicker of candlelight, which told that Mr. Taylor, however weary, was pouring over the little Bible in two volumes always at hand. From two to four a.m. was the time he usually gave to prayer; the time when he could be most sure of being undisturbed to wait upon God. That flicker of candlelight has meant more to them than all they have read or heard on secret prayer; it meant reality, not preaching, but practice.” (TAYLOR, p. 239)
If what Hudson Taylor did to have time alone with God sounds extreme, we need to realize that we may have to go to extremes to have some prayer time alone with God:
— Jesus said you may need to go into an inner room and shut the door in order to be alone with God.
— Hudson Taylor had to screen off a section of a room, and pray and read His Bible at 2:00 a.m.
— Jesus had to get totally out of the house and go off to a secluded spot while it was still dark to pray.
You may need to do something that you’d think, “this is extreme” — maybe get up at some extreme hour; maybe get out of the house; the point Jesus is making here is: your prayer time with God is so important, it is worth going to extremes to get alone with Him. It is the most important thing you can do in a day. It is worth going to whatever extremes you have to, in order to do it.
In the late 1600’s Susanna Wesley and her husband Charles had 19 children, two of whom were John & Charles Wesley, who grew up to become two of the most influential Christian ministers in history. You can imagine the craziness in their home, with 19 children! But she also trained her kids, that when she put her apron over her head, it was time that mom needed to pray, and they were quiet and left her alone. (I’ve read of moms these days who had to run into the bathroom and shut the door, with screaming preschoolers outside the door, to have just a minute or two of “quiet time” with God. I don’t know how “quiet” that time could really be ..!) Now some of these things may sound “extreme”, but Jesus is saying: go to whatever extremes you have to, to get your prayer time with God. It is the most important thing you have to do every day.
And listen: we need to understand that this is not just for the “super-spiritual-missionary-Hudson-Taylor” types; ALL of us need this. This is for every Christian. If you want to walk with the Lord; if you don’t want to struggle and flounder for the rest of your spiritual life, you MUST make it a priority to have time alone with God every day. Just like Jesus teaches here, you have to set a time and a place where you can be alone with God to pray.
Next month we are going to begin another round of discipleship classes, and I will be leading another group of MasterLife. Among other things, MasterLife teaches that to have an effective time with the Lord every day, you need 3 essential elements: a time, a place, and a procedure. That’s really what Jesus is talking about here that we need every day. I hope those of you who have never taken MasterLife here at Pleasant Ridge will consider enrolling in my class this Fall. If you’ll turn in the tear-off card with your name, and write “enroll me in MasterLife””, I’ll be sure to get you a book and save a spot for you this September.
But this is one of the most important lessons you can learn in MasterLife or anywhere else: you’ve got to set a “time”, a “place”, and have a a plan or “procedure” for time alone with God — and if you don’t, you won’t get it. Satan will do whatever he can to distract you from it, because he knows how vital it is. Hudson Taylor said that the hardest part of a missionary career is to maintain regular time with the Lord. He said: “Satan will always find you something to do, when you ought to be occupied about that, if it is only arranging a window blind.’” Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t let him get you off course. This could well be the most important thing you will take away from this message today. Commit yourself today to set a time and place every day when you can be alone with God and pray. There is NOTHING more important in your life than that.
II. Prayer is NOT an Impersonal Repetition
In :7 Jesus says, “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetitions as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them …”.
Here Jesus makes an important point: DO NOT see prayer as just repeating certain “magic words” that you say to get over with, or to get something you want. There is way too much of this type of “praying”, but it is not what God is looking for — and it fact if you do it like that, it is a waste of time.
Just repeating the same prayers was something that was very common in Jesus’ day. For some time the Jews had a custom of praying three times a day, but after they came back from the Captivity in Babylon, they started the tradition of praying what they call “The 18 Benedictions” 3 times a day. These “18 Benedictions” are 18 different paragraph prayers, which they were to read or recite, facing Jerusalem. The first one is a paragraph of praise:
“O L-rd, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.
Blessed art thou, O lord our G-d and G-d of our fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob, the great mighty and revered G-d, the most high G-d, who bestows lovingkindness, and the Master of all things; who remembers the pious deeds of the patriarchs, and in love will bring a redeemer to their children’s children for your Name’s sake.”
Now, I think that was a fine prayer; I don’t see anything wrong with it. But the problem is, they would pray that paragraph, as well the rest of the 18 other paragraphs, 3 times a day in prayer. When you start praying this SAME prayer, 3 times a day, every day, sooner or later you are going to tire of it, and it is going to become what Jesus calls here a “meaningless repetition.” Really ANYTHING that you just say over and over, will eventually become a mindless, mechanical repetition — and that is not what God wants from us.
— One of the most “mechanical” types of prayer I have seen was on a mission trip to Nepal, where at one of the temples in Kathmandu they had this big “wheel” as big as a large room, laying on its side, that people would walk by and “push” with their hand to make it spin. I was told later that this was what they called a “prayer wheel.” If you looked, you could see that people had put prayer requests into the little crevices in the wheel, and their thought was that as people walked by and “spun” the wheel, that it would make the prayers go up to God! But how much “heart” was really in that? It was just a “mechanical process”.
But unfortunately, isn’t that what a lot of our prayers even in Christendom have become — just heartless, meaningless, mechanical repetitions?
— I read the other day where some Catholics had been instructed to “Pray ten ‘Our Fathers’ and one “Glory Be To The Father”; and then repeat that whole process three times. Now I don’t just want to be overly critical of someone else’s religious practice, but repeating a prayer like that, 30 times over and over, day after day, CANNOT HELP but become a mechanical, meaningless repetition, JUST like Jesus warned us about here.
And can’t you see how ironic that is? Jesus had JUST said here in :7, “DO NOT use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose they will be heard for their many words.” And then He gives us this Model Prayer to guide us as how to really pray in a meaningful relationship with God — and yet some of us have taken the very prayer Jesus gave us to not have a meaningless repetition, and turned that into the exact kind of meaningless repetition that He had just warned us against!
Jesus says DO NOT just routinely pray the same things over and over again until they become mindless and meaningless to you:
— that can be done with the “Our Father” prayer
— that can be done with the “Hail Mary” prayer (which is even worse; because NOWHERE in scripture does it say we are supposed to be praying to Mary at all!)
— but we also need to see that that doesn’t just happen with prayers that people in “OTHER” denominations pray, but even many of us as Baptists often fall into the same old “routine” prayers that just thoughtlessly come out of our mouth.
Now, many us might say: But I don’t have any “formal” written down prayers — but the thing is, someone COULD write them down, because the fact is, we have such a routine in our praying, that people who are in your family, or who have been with you in church for very long, could actually WRITE DOWN IN ADVANCE the words of the prayer you are going to pray; because you ALWAYS say the same thing!
And there is nothing necessarily wrong with these words — we just need to be careful that we don’t just fall into a “rut” in our prayers, until they become just a meaningless repetition to us.
George Mueller of England, who started an orphanage in the 1800’s for the specific purpose of showing the world how God would provide, and who was a great man of prayer, said that one of the best things he had found to remedy praying the same things repeatedly, was to pray for your requests using the scriptures from your daily Bible reading. So instead of just praying the same old “bless so-and-so” every day, until it becomes a mechanical repetition, if you are reading Psalm 90, and it says “confirm for us the work of our hands, yes confirm the work of our hands,” then pray THAT for the person you are praying for: “Lord, just as your word here says, confirm the work of their hands.” Or if you are reading John 15, and Jesus says, “He who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit”, then pray for them: “Lord, help them to abide in You every day, and bear the fruit You want them to bear in their life”, and so on with whatever you are reading that day. Use the scriptures you are reading each day to pray for your requests to help you avoid falling into “meaningless repetition.”
The bottom line is: Prayer is the most important thing you can do every day. BUT DON’T GET INTO A RUT WITH IT, and think that just by “saying the right words” over and over, that God is going to hear you. You’ve got to make it heart-felt, and personal — because as we see lastly …
III. Prayer is a Relationship With Your Heavenly Father
— Jesus said in :6 that you are to go into your inner room, close your door, “and pray TO YOUR FATHER who is in secret.”
— He said in :8 not to pray meaningless repetitions like the Gentiles, for “Your FATHER knows what you need before you ask Him.”
— And then He said in :9 to “Pray then in this way: ‘Our FATHER Who art in heaven …’.”
THREE TIMES here at least Jesus talks about how prayer is a conversation with your FATHER.
This is the most important thing we need to understand about prayer. Prayer is not just an impersonal “transaction” we have with some “force” or power; prayer is an expression of a relationship we have with God.
See, God originally made to know Him, and have fellowship with Him regularly. But we chose to sin, which cut us off from that fellowship with a Holy God. That is why Jesus came: because God had mercy on us, and still loved us even though we didn’t deserve it, and Jesus died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven — NOT just so that we could “go to heaven” one day — but so that we could come back to the RELATIONSHIP with God that He made us for in the first place. One day we WILL get to be with Him in heaven forever, but for now, the way we express our relationship is in His word and prayer: He speaks to us in His word, and we speak to Him in prayer. Prayer is how we talk to the Heavenly Father that we have this eternal relationship with.
But too many people think of prayer as just a “transaction” that you make with God; you tell Him certain words, and He gives you what you want. Basically this kind of person sees God as a great “Vending Machine” in the sky — just put the “right words” in (just like coins into a vending machine), and you can get what you want out of Him. (This is the problem with the “prayer wheel”. They consider prayer as just an impersonal transaction.)
The problem with that is, God is NOT the “Great Vending Machine”! He is our “Heavenly Father”, Jesus said. There is a big difference between a “Heavenly Father” and a “Heavenly Vending Machine.”
— with a vending machine, you just put the right thing in, and you get whatever you want.
— But with a Father, it is not just a matter of saying the “right words”; it is your HEART that matters to Him.
— with a vending machine; the only reason it exists is to give you stuff. Some people think of God that way; but the truth is He is much more than just someone who exists to give you stuff. He made you to KNOW HIM, and talk to Him, and love Him. And that is what prayer is for. PRAYER IS NOT JUST “PUTTING COINS INTO THE MACHINE”; PRAYER IS TALKING TO YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN.
Someone wrote that prayer isn’t as much about changing God as it is about changing US. But I’d go a step further and say it is more about just talking with God — not merely “getting things out of Him”; and not even just to change us; but just to spend time with our Heavenly Father who made us, and loves us, and wants to hear us talk to Him; who enjoys hearing us sing to Him; yes who wants to give us things that are good for us — but it’s much more than that; it’s about the relationship we have with Him.
I love the story the pastor Cheryl & I had years ago in Oklahoma, Bill Elliff, tells about when one of his daughters was a little preschooler. He said this daughter would sit in his lap, and he’d put a penny in his hand, and make a fist and hold that penny, and she would try to get that penny out. He said she’d sit there for the longest time, and pry, and work, and trying to get that penny out of his hand. Bill said, you know, I could have opened my hand at any moment, and just given her that penny. But I enjoyed the time that we spent together, her sitting with me and playing. It wasn’t really about the penny; he said it was about us just being together.
And this is what we need to realize about prayer. Prayer is not just “putting some coins into the machine” to get what we want out of God. Prayer — more than anything else — is about just spending time with your Father in Heaven who loves you, and wants you to love Him, and spend time with Him. When you are praying like that — from a real, heartfelt, relationship with God, then your prayers will be the kind of prayers God intended them to be.
— (In two weeks, when we come back to Matthew 6, we are going to look at the Model Prayer, and how Jesus gave it to us as an OUTLINE of the things our Heavenly Father wants us to talk with Him when we pray. I hope you’ll be sure to be here for that.)
But for today, maybe you need to rededicate yourself today to prayer:
— to making prayer the priority time Jesus said it should be; set a time, arrange a place, know what you’re going to do in prayer and Bible reading
— Or maybe you need to confess the sin of getting “mechanical” and repetitious in our praying … you’re just saying the same old things; putting the “same old coins into the machine”, but you know it’s not being effective. God’s calling you back to a more personal prayer time with Him every day.
You might want to ask God to help you scriptures to help you pray, like George Mueller talked about …
— Maybe you’d say, I don’t HAVE a real, personal relationship with God, that He would hear my prayers. Right now; right where you are, call out to God in prayer. Admit to Him that you have separated yourself from Him by your sin, and ask Him to forgive you because of what Jesus did on the cross. Ask Him to save you and become the Lord & Master of your life. And ask Him to help you follow Him from this day forward. Claim the promise of scripture: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved”, and then begin to build your own personal relationship with God by spending time with Him in His word and prayer every day.