The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down

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By Dr. Albert Mohler

Do Not Pray Like the Hypocrites

The first thing Jesus tells us as we prepare to pray is “you must not be like the hypocrites” (Matt. 6:5). Jesus condemned all forms of hypocrisy, but here he is speaking of a specific, public hypocrisy that seeks personal attention for piety, as we have seen. Jesus explains the interior motive of these types of hypocrites: “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” (Matt. 6:5).

Jesus is referring here to the ostentatious prayers of the Pharisees, but we need to see the temptation that exists here for us as well. You and I can easily engage in hypocritical prayer that is about God in its formal address but far from him in terms of the posture of our heart. After instructing his disciples in what not to do, Jesus then tells them what they are supposed to do: “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” (v. 6). A private prayer room can be a very useful tool for personal devotion to God, yet Jesus is not concerned primarily with architecture here. He is noting the importance of seclusion. The real issue is not so much where you pray, but doing so in a way that does not parade your piety in front of others.

When we pray in isolation, no temptation exists to pose and posture for any observers. We pray to seek communion with God. The result of praying like this is a reward from the Father in heaven. The Father who knows what is done in secret will reward those who pray in secret. This reward is not material or anything we can quantify. Instead, our reward is communion with God himself. God is the reward he gives to his people.

Do Not Pray to Impress

After admonishing his disciples not to pray to impress people, Jesus then warns them not to pray to impress God: “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” (vv. 7–8). God is not looking for long words, long prayers, and mindless repetition. And he is not impressed by the length or complexity of our prayers. Once, when I was a teenager, I was asked to pray, and I began to repeat words whose meanings I did not know. I had once heard someone use the word supplication in prayer, and on this occasion I worked it into my prayer. “Lord,” I said, “hear our supplications.” After sitting down, I thought, What in the world is a supplication? I was then chastened by a thought that remains with me to this day: What kind of prayer is it that uses words you do not even understand?

This type of mindless repetition and heaping up of “empty phrases” is powerfully portrayed in 1 Kings 18 at the battle of the gods on Mount Carmel. The priests of Baal were furiously repetitive in their prayers and labored to get the attention of their gods, so much so that they even lacerated their bodies to attract their gods’ interest in their activity. Elijah used this as an opportunity to give a little theology of prayer. As the priests continued praying and cutting themselves to no response from Baal, Elijah mocked them by saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). Then Elijah demonstrated that God is not impressed by our many words.

Elijah’s prayer was simple:

O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back. (vv. 36–37)

As this story shows, the Lord isn’t looking for impressive words; he is looking for humble hearts—hearts that trust him enough to work, even when our words are few. Matthew 6:8 is crucial to understanding the Lord’s Prayer: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If we understand that our Father knows our needs before we ask him, we won’t feel compelled to try to impress God with our prayers and elicit a certain response through some sort of feigned earnestness. Instead, by faith we will see a sovereign God who is ready and able to answer our prayers, and who directs all things for our good and his glory. This type of theology informs how we understand what we are doing when we come before his throne of grace with our requests and needs (Heb. 4:16).

Approaching the Lord’s Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer does not teach us the artifice or the mechanics of prayer. Instead, the Lord Jesus rearranges our theology and breaks open our faulty misconceptions about the character of God and our deepest needs in this world. He teaches us that prayer is not about impressing God; rather, it is about praising him by humbly coming before him to offer the kind of prayer that pleases him.

As Jesus’ disciples, we need to pray. We are created to be a praying people. But we desperately need instruction on how to pray. We need the Lord Jesus Christ himself to teach us to pray because, left to our own devices, we will pray wrongly. We need to approach the Lord’s Prayer with the same request and attitude as Christ’s disciples. We need to ask the Lord to teach us to pray. Of course, Jesus was ready to teach his disciples before they were ready to learn. He is ready to teach us too.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. has been called “one of America’s most influential evangelicals” (Economist) and the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement” (Time.com). The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he writes a popular blog and a regular commentary, available at AlbertMohler.com, and hosts two programs: “The Briefing” and “Thinking in Public.” He is the author of many books, including We Cannot Be Silent, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and on programs such as NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, and TheNews Hour with Jim Lehrer. He and his wife, Mary, in Louisville, Kentucky.