How are we to Pray?

Adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation delivered on 10 Sep 2004

"5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him" (Matthew 6:5-8)

Most of us are familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, which is pattern of prayer which the Lord taught His disciples. But many of us fail to realise that the Lord actually gave an introductory lesson on prayer before He taught the Lord’s Prayer. Our text, which is quoted above is this introduction.

In the Gospel of Luke, we are told that the Lord spoke these words in response to His disciples’ request. We are told that:

"…as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples" (Lk 11:1).

Our Lord then responded with the words in our text. For some reason, Luke does not record this introduction. He goes straight on to record the Lord’s Prayer. But we need have no doubt that our Lord’s introductory words are as important as the model prayer itself.

Indeed, there are three important lessons on prayer, which we must learn from this introduction.

The first lesson is:

1. Prayer is not for Show

5a And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.

Times have change, but man has not. Is it not true that one of the most common problems with prayer is that of showmanship?

During the days of the Lord, the problem was blatant. Hypocritical showmanship was rife. Our Lord spoke of how the Scribes and Pharisees made "broad their phylacteries, and enlarge[d] the borders of their garments," (Mt 23:5) so that they would stand out from the people. And they love "the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi" (Mt 23:6-7).

They loved it when people flattered them for their religiosity. And what better way to make people think that they were pious and religious, than to stand in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets and pray aloud with high sounding eloquence. Oh how that was guaranteed to illicit praises from the undiscerning people, ‘If this man can pray with such eloquence and religious ardour, he is surely a man who is favoured by God and greatly to be respected’.

But our Lord exposes the hypocrisy of these pseudo-religious people.

5b Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Their prayers serve no other purpose than to elevate themselves in the eyes of man. Well, they achieved what they wanted. So they have already got their reward. They should not expect to receive anything more from the Lord. Their prayers are only fit for condemnation.

This is not how we should pray. Instead…

6 … when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Our Lord, you must understand is not denouncing public prayers altogether. It is necessary that when we have public worship, we will have public prayers.

What our Lord is exhorting us to do is to guard against showmanship. Prayer is a pouring out of our hearts unto God. It must never be turned into an ornament of hypocritical religiosity.

How do we apply our Lord’s exhortation?

We must apply it firstly by putting more priority to our private prayers than to public prayers. Anyone who spends more time praying in public than in private must necessarily be hypocritical in his prayers. Or let me put it this way: If we pray only when we have a hearing from men, then it is symptomatic that we have not understood what it is to pray. Let us therefore take heed to maintain our private prayer life.

Man ought always to pray and not faint. We must pray without ceasing. While the Word of God is food to the soul, Prayer is the respiration of the soul. As your body cannot live without breathing, your soul cannot live without prayer.

But secondly, we must apply our Lord’s exhortation against showmanship in prayer by being careful not to parade our soul.

Now, I am not saying that we need not be concerned about what words to use when we pray in public. When we are praying in public, we are praying for and with those who are with us. Therefore we must, pray in such a way that others can follow us, and say ‘Amen’ to our prayers. So we must make sense in our prayer, and we should use the pronoun ‘we’ rather than ‘I,’ etc.

But we must be careful not to allow our public prayers to become sermonettes, or worse, to use it to show others how religious we are. Remember our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in prayer. How did the Pharisee pray?

"God, I thank thee, [he says] that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess" (Lk 18:11-12).

The prayer of this Pharisee was condemned by the Lord.

Let us strive to put off all pretences in our public prayers. It is far better to be clumsy and crude than to be hypocritical in our prayers.

But secondly, we learn from our Lord that…

2. Prayer should not be Mechanical

7a But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do…

It is a well known fact that the heathen use vain repetitions in their prayers. When I was young I used to go to my aunt’s home. There she has a huge altar with a few idols on display. Every morning my aunt or her servant would kneel before the altar, and she would have a coconut shell and a drumstick, and she would knock on the coconut shell repeatedly as she chants something which I can never make out. Indeed I wonder if she knows what she is saying.

Sadly, under the pale of Christianity, a similar practice has evolved in liturgical churches. Think of the Roman Catholic Church. Think of their use of the rosary. I searched the website to see how they use the rosary. This is what is recommended in the Rosary Centre website:

Make the Sign of the Cross and say the Apostles’ Creed.

Say the Lord’s Prayer.

Say the "Hail Mary" three times. "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

Say the Gloria Patri: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Announce the First Mystery; then say the Lord’s Prayer.

Say ten Hail Marys, while meditating on the Mystery.

Say the Gloria Patri

Announce the Second Mystery; then say the Lord’s Prayer. Repeat 6 and 7 and continue with Third, Fourth and Fifth Mysteries in the same manner.

Well, if this is not vain repetition, I am not sure what is! And amazingly, included in the vain repetition of the rosary is the Lord’s Prayer itself. One wonders how anyone could use the Lord’s Prayer in such a way when our Lord personally condemns vain repetitions before He taught the Lord’s Prayer.

We can have no doubt that all such mechanically repetitious prayers are abominable to God in that they are directly contrary to the teachings of Christ. It does not matter what words are used in the prayer. If they are used mechanically with vain repetition, the prayer is an abomination to the Lord.

But let us pause for a moment and ask ourselves if we have also used vain repetitions in our prayers. Now, obviously none of us would use vain repetitions in the way that the Roman Catholics would use. But let us be careful that we do not fall into a more subtle form of vain repetition.

What is this more subtle form? This more subtle form involves the use of stock phrases that is repeated over and over again every time we pray. Now, it is of course inevitable that we will reuse some phrases in our prayers. Very few of us are able to pray publicly without ever repeating the phrases we have used before. So I am not talking about that.

I am talking about how our prayers can become so stereotyped that everything that is said is predictable and nothing new is added. It is almost like a tape playback. Such prayers are impervious to surrounding circumstances and will not penetrate heaven.

They can be beautiful prayers in themselves, but they are so general that they can be used at a funeral and at a wedding without many changes.

No, no, let us watch ourselves. And I am reminding myself too. Let us be careful that we do not simply spew out our prayers. Let us consider the situation we are in and pour out our hearts.

Let us listen to the news and respond to the news.

Let us listen to the Word of God read and preached, and respond to the Word.

Let us listen to the needs of our brethren and petition our Lord on behalf of our brethren.

It is very sad if we come for prayer meeting and all the prayers that were uttered were only generalisations. It is very sad when prayer requests made were not prayed for. It is very sad when crisis in the world and the church do not enter into our prayers.

But having said that let us learn a third lesson from our Lord, namely that…

3. Prayer Need Not be Lengthy

7b for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

Going hand in hand with vain repetitions is "long prayers." Now, I find it hard to talk about this because I have been told that my prayers are too long.

But let God be true and every man a liar. If I am guilty of what the Lord condemns, then I must not defend myself but confess and repent.

It is amazing that our Lord did not think we should pray long prayers. "They think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" He charges. And not only here, but in Matthew 23, He explicitly condemns the Scribes and Pharisees for their long prayers.

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation" (Mt 23:14).

I trust that none of us is praying hypocritically. But we are guilty of wearing down our brethren and wearing God with long and repetitious prayers.

You know how it is. When we are called to pray publicly, somehow many of us are uncomfortable with making a concise, to-the-point prayer. So we pad our prayers with additional and incidental details in order to make up the length.

Well, this must be consciously avoided not only for sincerity sake, but for the sake of those praying with us. Now, of course, I am not suggesting that it is wrong to praise God or to confess our sin in every of our prayers. But I am suggesting that we should not add these things just so that our prayer will sound more complete.

When we meet for corporate prayers, let us take heed to what has already been said. So for example if the two persons ahead of you have already made a general confession of sin on behalf of the church, then unless the Lord moves you to confess an aspect not already touched on, there would be no necessity to make another confession.

Likewise, let us learn to leave some items for our brethren to pray. Remember that in our prayer meeting, we are praying as a body, not as individuals. Let us pick an item or two and leave the rest to those who will follow us. Unless you are very exercised about a particular item, don’t worry about it being left out. If we pray concisely, there will be time for our elders when they close in prayer to tie up the loose ends.

So brethren, let us learn to pray concise prayers. Do give space for others also to pray. And do bear in mind those who are following us in prayer. It can be very tiring for our sisters and children who cannot come forward to pray to have to follow one long prayer after another.


How should we pray?

First of all, we must not pray for show.

Secondly, we must not pray mechanically and repetitiously.

Thirdly, we must not make our prayers tediously long especially when we are praying in public.

Let us take heed to our Lord’s exhortation. Let us seek to make our prayer meetings a joyful experience that honours our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

—JJ Lim