Praying Poorly (Matthew 6:5-8)
In these verses in Matthew 6, Jesus is not merely suggesting that Christians should pray or even commanding that Christians pray, but instead He is assuming that Christians will pray, which is why he begins verses 5, 6 and 7 with “when” rather than “if.” And His instruction here is specifically about how we can pray better. In teaching us how to pray better, Christ begins with concrete, easy to understand examples of how not to pray.
Pretending Prayer (verses 5-6)
First, he says that we are not to be like the hypocrites. Hypocrites do not love to pray; they love the applause from others that they get when they are noticed for their praying. The problem is not what they do (“standing to pray”) or where they do it (“in the Synagogue” or “on the street corners”), but why they do it (“That they may be seen by men”).
The word “hypocrite” refers to an actor in a staged play. In the Greek theater, a mask was often worn to conceal the actual identity of the actor. In this context (and in our context), a hypocrite is someone who is using the world as their stage and casting themselves in the starring role. The hypocrite is consumed with being known as the “one who prays.” They pray with the intention of affecting the hearers, rather than approaching God with reverence. While what we pray in front of others does matter and we should seek to pray in a biblical way, nothing destroys prayer like focusing on human spectators rather. On the other hand, nothing enriches prayer like a sense of the presence of God.
– Rather than praying as hypocrites to be noticed by men, we should seek to do three things when we are praying: (1) forget others (we care too much what others think), (2) forget ourselves (we are too self-aware), (3) focus on God (blinded with preoccupation of others, this is impossible).
Pagan Prayer (verse 7)
The primary issue with pagan-style praying is not that there are too many words, but the assumption that many words will earn a hearing with God. Jesus is not condemning lengthy prayers, since there is nothing inherently wrong with repetition or long prayers, but He is condemning thoughtless, meaningless repetition as it is disengaged from the mind and heart. In the account of Elijah and the Baal worshipers in 1 Kings 18:17-39, the Baal worshipers cried out to their god all day and into the evening. Despite all of their shouting and raving, there was no response. On the other hand, Elijah prayed one simple, genuine prayer and God heard him and responded. Simple requests made to God are the only requirement. God does not need lengthly explanations. Our prayers should be frequent and fervent, but there is no need for them to be fancy.
– How is this instruction from Jesus encouraging to those of us who struggle in our prayer life? What does it reveal about the type of heart God desires in those who come to Him for help?
Parent-less Prayer (verse 8)
When we pray, we are to do so with the assurance that God is our all-knowing Father who is already aware of all that we need and able to provide. Just as David showed kindness to Mephibosheth on account of Jonathan, and promised to provide all that he needed from the abundance of his possessions as king (2 Samuel 9:1ff), so also as Christians we must be convinced that God our Father and King grants us unending provision and care. As those who are trusting in Jesus, we have been adopted, grafted in, and reconciled to God through Christ. When Jesus tells us to pray by addressing God as “Our Father” it is not mere protocol, but it is for the sake of truth. He wants us to obey the commandment to come to God as our Father as we look to Jesus as our Mediator.
– Why are we able to call God our Father? How does the fact that He is our Father affect the way that you pray to Him? How are your prayers different when you fail to believe that He is lovingly concerned for you and your needs and more than able to provide for them?