Why, How and What to Pray

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We've been learning about prayer recently in our home groups here and a few weeks ago in my group, we were thinking about excuses we make for not praying. We talked about feeling like we have a lack of time. Or failing to make prayer a priority. We talked about knowing there are so many things to pray for and yet feeling like we don't know where to begin. Or the problem of trusting that God is in control of our lives and yet knowing that he still asks us to pray.

Prayer is hard! I think that's what most of us feel when it comes to prayer. So tonight I hope we can be encouraged to pray and keep going in prayer, rather than feeling crippled with guilt for what we're not doing. The words of Jesus are an ever helpful guide for us and I pray we'll see how prayer flows not from a feeling that we ought to, but from the right perspective of our relationship as children of God, with a loving Father. So let me pray that for us now.

Father, please would you help us this evening as we come before your word, to learn, and grow in prayer: in why, and how and what to pray, please help us to base prayer on the right view of you. For Jesus' sake. Amen.

1. Why Pray? (v.6)

This evening we're learning from Jesus' Sermon On the Mount, which has much to say about what the right motivation should be in doing Christian things and the dangers of doing them for the wrong reasons. Which brings us to our first point: Why pray?

Matthew 6.5 - "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…

So it seems that some Jews were praying loud, showy, public prayers in the temple to gain attention. And that attention was their reward for praying.

We probably won't be tempted to pray loudly on street corners. But, our prayers with others can become a performance. Instead of choosing our words carefully to truly express our desires to God and to be clear, perhaps we choose our words to sound as eloquent as we can. Jesus' assessment of prayers prayed with such motivation is that they settle for a poor reward.

For a reward of great treasure comes when we pray with the attitude of verse 6 - "…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."

These verses encourage private prayer. But that doesn't mean they condemn praying with others, which the Bible encourages. However, in general, when we pray privately there is no hint of trying to seek acclaim. It's a time between us and God. As we've said, the issue here is primarily of motivation, it's not that private prayers are superior. Mentioning that you've done a 45-minute quiet time this morning to gain acclaim is exactly the attitude Jesus is condemning. Prayer with the right attitude in the secret of our hearts will be truly rewarded. How? Doubtless in many ways, but here are three rewards of prayer:

  • Reward 1: Prayer strengthens our faith.

When we come to God in prayer we're acknowledging our weakness and need before him and asking him to do things that we can't. And that's good for us. Because much of life we can't control. But God can. So our trust in God is strengthened, and re-established in situations when we come to him and say "Lord, if it is your will, please do what I cannot do".

  • Reward 2: Prayer eases our anxiety.

Philippians 4.6-7 says: "do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." We all face anxiety and we live in an increasingly anxious world, prayer doesn't zap anxiety away. But these verses are a promise that God our Father will bring peace and protection through prayer and that is a reward which gives us great hope in the difficulties of life.

As we sang earlier:

What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear;
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.
O what peace we often forfeit
O what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.

  • Reward 3: Prayers are answered.

When we pray we have access to our Father in heaven who hears our prayers and answers them. I've seen answers to prayer in my life through personal challenges and life decisions. And also through the people I've prayed for. I was best man to a good friend a week ago. As I looked back at my friend's life and how he's grown as a Christian over the years I saw many answers to prayers prayed for him.

Friends, there are great rewards to praying. That's not to say it's all easy. Prayer doesn't always feel strengthening for our faith, at least not initially, or in every situation. We don't always see answers to prayer, some of us feel that very painfully. And, if we're honest, often we do forfeit peace through not praying, don't we? But there are great rewards to praying and I hope those encourage us to start praying or to pray more, because there is great reward in prayer.

2. How to Pray (vv.6-8)

Next, we should consider what this passage tells us about how to pray. So, back to verse 6: "…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."

Jesus presumes that Christians will pray: "when you pray". I think that should encourage those of us with minimal prayer lives right now, because, simply put – all we need to do is start and come to our Father. Yes, on one hand, we need to think about what we're praying for – we'll come on to that. But on the other hand, there's no big secret to getting going, we don't need to work out a detailed plan initially, we simply need to begin. Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed with prayer lists or fancy apps, as helpful as they are, that we find ourselves doing nothing rather than something. A strong prayer life is built. It's infinitely better to pray small than not at all.

And the best location, says Jesus, is somewhere where we won't be disturbed. For some of that is easy. For some of us that will be very difficult – especially if we live with friends or have a family with young children. So, as has been helpfully said, 'pray as you can, not as you can't'.

But the other thing about this verse is the intentionality – the decision to go and pray. That takes thought and planning. So it's been wisely said, 'much praying is not done because we do not plan to pray'. And that's my Achilles' heel sometimes. Too often I plan my day and try to fit prayer in, when really everything else should fit around my plan to pray. When I really plan to pray carefully, those are the best times of prayer – because I've got the most protected and uninterrupted time.

Now, as much as attempting too much too soon in prayer can be overwhelming, I want to mention briefly that there are various tools to help us make the most and develop our time in prayer e.g. simple practical things like making a note of what we've prayed for, or having some Bible reading notes to help us pray in line with God's promises. Best advice: ask a Christian you trust for advice and support. There's much more to say, but time doesn't allow.

That's some help on how to pray. And we get more in verses 7-8: "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."

The issue isn't repetition, rather mechanical praying as we repeat certain phrases. God is not impressed by the sheer volume of words or the vocabulary that we're using. To think that such prayers are better is holding the view that we can manipulate God and ultimately to believe in a false God. One of the great exemplifiers of prayer in my life was someone who prayed so simply and yet sincerely. And that's how we can pray because we trust God's goodness and wisdom.

Because, verse 8, "your Father knows what you need before you ask him". Which is remarkable. Yet it may lead us to ask 'what's the point of praying then in the first place, if God already knows what we need?' Well, the whole point here is that we don't pray to inform God, or convince him to give us things as if he were reluctant. The message here is: God isn't reluctant, in his sovereignty, he knows what you really need, and if and when you need it and he won't be slow in giving it to you.

Sometimes the answer to prayer is 'yes'. But often we're perplexed and frustrated by the fact that we don't receive answers to prayer. And that's where, even if we don't understand, we can trust that the answer is 'not now' or a 'no, this isn't best for you'. Of course, we don't always know why this is the case – but, again, the point of verse 8 is that 'God is our loving Father and he knows what is best for us'.

And in terms of whether to keep praying for something, if we see in the Bible that what we're praying for is in line with God's will then it's worth persisting in prayer. If the Bible is silent on it, e.g. am I going to get that promotion or not? Then we need to remember that when we pray. As Martin Luther said, when we come to pray "we are instructing ourselves more than Him".

So let's plan to pray and pray with the right view of God – a loving Father to us. That's how to pray.

3. What to Pray (vv.9-15)

Lastly, what to pray? Well, Jesus gives us a model for how we should pray. The Lord's Prayer can be so familiar to us that we scarcely engage with its meaning anymore. But could I encourage us to look at it afresh this evening? Look to verse 9:

"Pray then like this:
'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.'"

To describe God as "Our Father in heaven" is bringing together the astonishing truth that we have a personal, loving relationship with an all-powerful God. The grass of Centre Court at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships is often described as hallowed, because its deemed deserving of great honour. A more literal meaning of hallowed would be 'holy'. So in praying this, we're asking first and foremost that we would do that – that we would be made holy in order to pay greater honour to God's name in all that we do: at work, at home, with our family, friends, on the sports field or book club. In every situation, it removes us from the centre of the equation and places God there.

And so, verse 10:

"Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven."

God's kingdom is his Kingly rule, seen in those who are Christians and live with Jesus as their King. To pray for God's kingdom to come is to ask for the church around the world to grow through more people coming to faith, but also here in and through JPC. So this is what we're praying for when we're asking a friend to come along to Advent Carols or to Life Explored. It's also to pray for God's kingdom to come about fully, that Jesus would return and wrap up history. That will truly put God where he deserves to be – on the throne, with everything subject to him. The challenge for us is to pray this and really mean it, to really long for God's Kingdom to come. We might be happy for it to come after we've got the job we want, after we've tasted marriage, or bought our dream home or whatever it is for you. But friends, these good things pale in comparison to what is to come.

Praying for God's will to be done is praying that we would be obedient to him in all that we do, i.e. that our wills, or desires, as Christians would be brought more in line with his, and ultimately that through us his purposes would be brought about. So, for example, in my home group over the past few years, we've prayed several times for jobs for a number of us. And the best prayers we've prayed aren't 'please will our friend get this job they've applied for'. The best prayers have been asking God to help those searching to trust and honour him in the process and if they get the job to be able to witness to him. Because we can't be sure of God's will in job applications until we get offered a job. But we can be sure we need to trust God and live for him in the application process and beyond that when we are working.

Of course, we can pray boldly for the provision of work or whatever our current needs are and that's what the second half of the Lord's prayer is all about. Verse 11 continues:

"Give us today our daily bread."

Whether we currently have need or abundance, we are dependent on God daily for all that we need to live a modest life, including food and shelter. However, this is a prayer that we almost feel we don't have to pray because, for many of us, so often, it has its answer in every day of our lives. We so often long for more than we need, luxuries even, instead of asking for what we need, and by implication, thanking God for what we have.

But our greatest need of all is deliverance from sin, verse 12:

"and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."

'Once forgiven always forgiven' is a great truth of the Christian life. When we trust in Christ we are forgiven now and always, no matter what we do our standing with God does not change. Maybe that's a promise you could trust in this evening for the first time? If so, or if you'd like to think through it more, don't leave without chatting with someone.

But, this side of heaven, although our standing with God cannot change, sin spoils our relationship with God and distracts us from him. So Jesus encourages us to bring our sin to God on a regular basis to enable us to admit that we remain brokenly sinful people who depend on God for forgiveness.

And verses 14-15 add greater weight to this: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

Again, the issue here is all about attitude. If we truly understand how we have rejected and sinned against God to the point of him sending his son to die we will, in his strength, seek to forgive others. Now, I know, that doesn't make the real hurt others may have caused us easy to forgive, but it gives us the right perspective – the fact that despite whatever we've done, and however often, God is ready to forgive us.

Finally, we have verse 13:

"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

Which is saying 'God please protect me from future temptations to sin and protect me from the devil who tempts me'. So this is a prayer to pray to keep us going in the Christian life in dependence on God to protect us from sin, and the desire to sin. How we need to pray this!

I hope this evening has encouraged you to come to your heavenly Father in prayer.

As we finish, it seems appropriate to respond to learning about prayer by praying to our heavenly Father. So, in a moment of silence, let's bring to the Lord what has struck us this evening, and ask him to help and grow us in our prayer lives.

Father God. Teach us to pray. Teach us to see the reward of prayer for what is truly is and what it definitely isn't. Help us to see that you are our heavenly Father who longs to hear us and is delighted to give us all that we truly need in life. Teach us to pray for your purposes and glory to be known in our needy world, as well as our own physical and spiritual needs. And thank you, that because of Jesus we can always come and pray to you. In Jesus' name. Amen.

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