Genuine Prayer

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I once led a group for new Christians, and in the session on prayer, I said, 'You could use the pattern "STOP" – S-T-O-P – which stands for Sorry, Thanks, Others, Please.' And that reminds you to: say sorry to God for what you've done wrong, to thank him for what he's given you, to pray for others, and to ask for what you need.' And afterwards, one of them said to me, 'I've never prayed like that – I just talk to God about everything. Is that wrong?' And I was mortified that I'd made her think it might be.

But that shows the danger of talking about prayer – which is that you make it seem complicated and hard, and hinder people instead of helping.

On the other hand, the Bible does say a lot about prayer, and gives lots of examples of prayer, so that from our Christian 'babyhood', we grow up in understanding who we're praying to, and what he wants us to pray. And that's what tonight's passage in our series on the Sermon On the Mount does.

So would you turn back in the Bibles to Matthew 6.5. The Lord Jesus was teaching here about giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. And he says: we can do all three without being genuine – either by doing them to impress others; or by just going through the motions, but not really relating to God.

So tonight we're on genuine praying. And first off, Jesus says:

1. Pray to God, Not to Anyone Else Who's Listening (v5-6)

So look at Matthew 6.5. Jesus says:

"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 [to impress them]. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
[In other words, if the reward you're after is impressing others, that's all the reward you'll get.]
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 [by hearing and responding]."

So this is about when we're praying in front of others – like leading prayers here in church, or praying in your small group. And Jesus isn't saying, 'Don't pray together, in front of others.' He's just saying, 'Don't pray to impress them. Don't even worry what they'll think of your prayers. Just pray to God, not to anyone else.'

So he's not saying, 'Only pray on your own.' But he is saying, 'That's when you can be most sure your praying is genuine. Because when you're praying on your own, there's no-one else there who might be either the reason why you're praying (because you feel they expect you to), or the reason for how you're praying (because you're trying to impress them – or at least please them).

So for example, we can pray at mealtimes or children's bedtimes because we feel our families expect us to. Or we can pray in our small group, because we feel the others expect us to. But to measure the health of our prayer-lives, we need to think, 'How am I praying on my own?'

The next thing Jesus says is:

2. Pray to God as a Father Who Knows What You Really Need, and Needs No Manipulating to Give it (v7-8)

Look on to verse 7:

"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."

I once visited a Hindu temple. And this young couple came in to pray to a fertility god statue, for a baby. And they stood in front of it. And they rang a bell in its face (presumably to get its attention). And then they prayed this prayer off a card they'd been given. And then they rang the bell again (presumably to check it was still awake). And then they said the prayer again, then rang the bell again, then said the prayer again. And so on – for I don't know how long. And that's verse 7:

"heap[ing] up empty phrases… for they think that they will be heard for their many words."

In other words, they think they can manipulate the god into giving them what they want. Which is the parking meter view of God: shove enough coins in a meter and it'll give you a ticket; shove enough prayer at God and he'll give you what you want. To which Jesus says, verse 8:

"Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

So he's not a parking meter. If you're trusting in Jesus and his death for your forgiveness, God has become your Father – and a perfect one, in contrast to your earthly one. And so he knows better than we do what we really need and what's really good for us. And he's committed to giving it to us. So he doesn't need manipulating to meet our needs – after all, he gave up his Son, without us even asking, to meet our biggest need.

So I shouldn't make my mind up that something is definitely what I need, and then try to badger God into backing my plan. For example, I shouldn't decide that 'this is the job for me', and then pray and pray and pray, 'Lord, get me through the application… Lord., get me through the application.' Instead, I should pray, 'Father, you know I need a job, and that I like the look of this one. But you know best. So please help me apply well, but only give it to me if it'll be good for me.'

Last year, we got our dog, Bramble. And our children had been asking for a dog for several years. And early on, Tess and I decided we'd get one. But we didn't tell them, because we knew it would be best for them to be older, and that it would take time to decide the best kind of dog – and find one. So when Bramble finally came, Tess said to them, 'What did you think when you asked us and we didn't seem to do anything?' And Beth said, 'I knew you'd listen and do what was best.' Which was very sweet, and makes us sound far better parents than we are. But that's how we need to view God as we pray: as a Father who'll listen and give us what's really best. And that's hard when what we think is best isn't coming our way – and we're talking about big things, aren't we, like marriage and children and jobs and health. But we need to trust that that's what God is like.

So Jesus then says:

3. Pray to God in This Kind of Way (v9-13)

Look on to verse 9:

"Pray then like this:"

So Jesus doesn't say, 'Pray this – word for word.' There's nothing wrong with using it, straight, as a prayer. But Jesus is saying, 'These are the kind of things you should pray. This is a pattern for your praying' – a bit like my 'Sorry, Thanks, Others, Please' pattern. And my aim for the rest of this is to set you up to try using the pattern of the Lord's prayer from time to time – in your own praying, or maybe in leading prayers in church, or in your family or prayer partnership.

So to give you some real, take-away help, here is the Lord's pattern prayer, line by line, and under each bit, I've put in my own words what it's prompting us to pray:

"Our Father in heaven"

[Remember who you're praying to: trust that He's a Father who wants our good (Matthew 7.9-11) and is able to do what He wants.]

  • Remember to pray for 'us', not just 'me'

Our (v9)… us (v11)… us (v12)… we (v12)… us (v13)… us (v13)
[Think which other Christians you'll pray for right now.]

  • Aligning yourself with God's will

"hallowed be your name"

[Pray that God will be honoured by your holiness and the holiness of other believers (Ezekiel 36.22-28, Matthew 5.16); and so pray that he'd make you and them more holy.]

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

[Tell God that you want Jesus to come again and bring in His perfect rule. Pray that, meanwhile, you and others would get more ready for that.]

  • Asking God to meet your needs

"Give us this day our daily bread"

[Ask God for what you and others need to live to serve Him for another day. And thank Him when you or they have it.]

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

[Ask God's forgiveness for how you and other believers have failed to live in line with His will. Ask yourself whether you're extending the same kind of forgiveness to others – see Footnote on forgiveness (v14-15).]

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

[Ask God to protect and deliver you and other believers from falling into sin under temptation and pressure.]

Footnote on forgiveness (v14-15)

  • This doesn't mean that if you forgive Fred his sin against you, God will then forgive your sin against Him as a reward.
  • It does mean that it's humbug to ask forgiveness from God but refuse to extend forgiveness to others – because…
  • If we genuinely see the enormity of our own sin against God, and how much we need His forgiveness, we'll be willing to forgive others – even when that's very hard – because we know we'd be lost unless God had been willing to forgive us. Ie, being a forgiving person flows from being a forgiven person; a forgiving attitude to others is evidence of having been forgiven by God.
  • See Matthew 18.21-35, where Jesus shows what verse 15 means.

So you could copy, paste and print that out and use it in your own praying. You could read each bit of the Lord's prayer I've printed out, then read what I've put in my own words, then think what or who that brings to your mind to pray about, then pray. And then move onto the next bit.

So let's go through it:

"Our Father in heaven"

And in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above) I've put under that: remember who you're praying to: trust that He's a Father who wants our good and (because he's in heaven – in other words, because he's God) is able to do what He wants.

Next, I've put: remember to pray for 'us', not just 'me' – because just notice how often 'we' or 'us' appears in the pattern prayer:

"Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil."

So it looks like we're either meant to pray these kinds of things with other Christians; or, if we're praying on our own, to pray them for other Christians, as well as ourselves. So I've put in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above): think which other Christians you'll pray for right now. So, if you have spouse and children, maybe from time to time you could pray through this pattern for them. Maybe sometimes you could pray through it for those of us in leadership, or for one of our mission partners, or for others in your small group.

And the first half of this pattern is really about aligning ourselves with God's will. So:

"hallowed be your name"

What does that mean? Well a friend of mine did the guided tour of St James' Park, and as the guide brought them out of the tunnel he said, 'We don't go on the grass – that's hallowed turf.' In other words, it's to be honoured.

So this is asking that God's name would be honoured – which is the same idea as the Warburton's bread advert: 'We care because our name's on it.' In other words, we care about the quality of our bread, because that honours our name.

And in the same way, God's name is on us. If you're a Christian, you're carrying Christ's name. So if you're being holy – in other words, godly, Christlike – you'll honour his name as people watch you; but if you're not, you won't.

So in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above) I've put under that bit: pray that God will be honoured by your holiness and the holiness of other believers; and pray that he'd make you and them more holy.

And if you were praying through this in the morning, that line might remind you of who you're going to be living the Christian life in front of today – our workmates, your children, your schoolmates, whoever – and that'll prompt you to pray that you'll be holy in particular ways as they watch you.

Onto verse 10:

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

So what does "your kingdom come" mean? That easily trips off the tongue, with no idea what we're on about. Well, the kingdom of God is the situation where everyone perfectly submits to God as King – so there's no sin and none of sin's consequences. And that'll only happen when Jesus comes again, to wrap up history, and to welcome into his kingdom everyone who's accepted him as King in this life, and to turn away all who haven't. (Which is why sorting out where you stand with Jesus is the most important issue in life.) So when we pray, 'Your kingdom come,' we're praying for Jesus to come again. So in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above) I've put under that bit: tell God that you want Jesus to come again and bring in His perfect rule.

And just telling him that makes you think, 'Am I ready for that? And it prompts you to pray that you'll get more ready for that. For example, get better at serving Jesus' priorities (like sharing the gospel); and get better at not wasting the time and resources he's given us on things that really don't matter, and so on.'

And then it makes you think, 'And what about other people being ready? What about my non-Christian family and friends and workmates and neighbours?' And that prompts you to pray for them to hear the gospel, and to pray for your efforts and others' efforts to share the gospel. And to pray for mission partners worldwide. And so on.

So in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above) I've also put under that bit: pray that, meanwhile, you and others would get more ready for that.

Then the second half of this pattern is about asking God to meet your needs. So, verse 11

"Give us this day our daily bread."

Which was originally said to people who were largely subsistence farmers or fishermen working for today's food – or day labourers looking for a day's work, to buy today's food. So bread wasn't sitting sliced in the freezer, like it is with us. And they felt their dependence on God in a way we don't. Because for us, food comes from Sainsbury's. And money to buy it comes from our jobs. And our jobs come from us passing exams and doing well. And health to do that comes from medics and medicine. But that's all an illusion, isn't it? Because everything we need for physical life and health ultimately comes from God, not from supermarkets and surgeries.

So in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above) I've put under that bit: ask God for what you and others need to live to serve Him for another day – and thank Him when you or they have it. After all, if you're praying for what you need and realise you've got it already, thanks is in order. As is praying, 'Father, show me who else you want me to share this with, or give to.'

So verse 11 is about our physical needs as creatures; the rest is about our spiritual needs as sinners. So, onto verse 12:

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

So the debts here are metaphorical – spiritual debts. The picture is that we owe God a life of trust and obedience, but we've failed to pay – we've sinned. So, spiritually speaking, we're in debt – unless Jesus gets us out of it. And, if we're trusting in him and his death, he has done. So listen to what Colossians 2 says to people trusting in Jesus:

"God… [has] forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us…This he set aside, nailing it to the cross." (Colossians 2.13-14)

So just imagine the record of your or my lifetime's sin – as thick as an encyclopaedia. And without Jesus, we'd have to face the consequence of that record – which, like I said earlier, is to be turned away from God's kingdom in the end. But on the cross, Jesus has taken that record and said, 'I'll face the consequence for you. This record, this debt, will be nailed with me to the cross, and cancelled.'

So if we're trusting in Jesus and his death, our whole lifetime – past and future – is covered with forgiveness. But as we become conscious of our sins day by day, we still need to confess them and ask him to apply the forgiveness he's already paid for, to us. Not because sin splits our relationship with God. Christians sometimes think like that, and think that confessing our sin is a way of 'clawing our way back' into relationship with God by being sorry enough. But that's not right, because sin doesn't split the relationship; but it does spoil it. God is personally offended by our sin, so the air of our relationship with him needs clearing as we confess and apologise.

So in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above) I've put under that bit: ask God's forgiveness for how you and other believers have failed to live in line with His will. And also: ask yourself whether you're extending the same kind of forgiveness to others, because verse 12 says:

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

And Jesus gives a kind of footnote about that in verses 14 and 15. So in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above), skip down to the:

Footnote on forgiveness (v14-15)

And look in the Bible at Matthew 6.14:

"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."

So let me read those bullet-points where I've tried to explain that as carefully as I can:

  • It doesn't mean that if you forgive Fred his sin against you, God will then forgive your sin against Him as a reward for forgiving Fred
  • But it does mean that it's humbug to ask forgiveness from God but refuse to extend forgiveness to others.

And that's because…

  • If we genuinely see the enormity of our own sin against God, and how much we need His forgiveness, we'll be willing to forgive others – even when that's very hard – because we know we'd be lost unless God had been willing to forgive us. To put it another way, being a forgiving person flows from being a forgiven person; a forgiving attitude to others is evidence of having been forgiven by God.

Now let me say: that doesn't mean forgiving is always or ever easy. Some of us have had to forgive huge and damaging things done to us. And it doesn't mean forgiveness always leads to a restored relationship, or to an absence of ongoing anger at what we've suffered. But as someone has helpfully put it, especially thinking of the hardest things we have to forgive, it means: not wishing the other person ill, not trying to get back at them, and not demonising them in our own minds or to others.

Lastly, verse 13:

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

Or that last bit can be translated 'deliver us from the evil one' (in other words, the devil, who tempts us), but it comes to much the same thing. So in my layout of the Lord's prayer (above) I've put under that bit: ask God to protect and deliver you and other believers from falling into sin under temptation and pressure. So, for example, think ahead to your day and what's most likely to tempt or pressurise you into sin – and pray about it. And pray regularly about the areas of sin you know you're prone to – whether it's jealousy, pornography, anger with children, whatever. Because for those sins we're prone to, we often get stuck in verse 12 – praying for forgiveness – and forget to pray verse 13. But pray verse 13 regularly, and we will experience God at work in us.

So that's the prayer pattern Jesus gave us. It's only one example in the Bible for us to follow, so it wouldn't be very balanced just to use this and forget all about the Psalms, for example. But I hope I've whet your appetite to use the layout of the Lord's prayer (above). From time to time you could set aside 5 or 10 minutes to think and pray your way through it for yourself and at least one other person.

It's been good for me to pick up that habit again as I've prepared. And I hope it'll be good for you.

Suggested reading/watching:

Prayer and the voice of God, Jensen & Payne, Matthias Media

… an outstanding book on why to pray, how to pray, why we don't, and common question and problems in prayer.

Praying the Lord's Prayer, Packer, Crossway

… is Jim Packer doing what I've done tonight in greater (100 page) depth.

Our Father: Enjoying God in Prayer, Richard Coekin, IVP

… is Richard Coekin doing the same in greater (200 page) depth.

There are three talks by Richard covering the main things in the book – on Clayton.tv

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