The “Dos” and “Don’ts” of Prayer
Laura Miguélez Quay
October 11, 2015
This morning we’re going to consider some things Jesus had to say about prayer. This portion of Matthew is a section of Jesus’ broader Sermon on the Mount presented in chapters 5–7 of this Gospel. And, as was the case with Paul when addressing the church in Colossae, Jesus has more than one audience in mind. He is teaching his followers what the Scriptures say—what God would have them do. But he is also correcting the false practices of some of the religious leaders of his day as well as some wrong pagan beliefs about prayer.
To better understand what has come to be known by us as “the Lord’s Prayer,” the verses that precede it provide some context. In these verses, Jesus begins with the negative. He begins his comments on “prayer don’ts” by telling his disciples not to pray like hypocrites who pray publicly, in the streets, for the sake of being seen and admired by others (verse 5).
Part of the general context here—which is easy for us to miss—is that at this time when people prayed, they tended to pray out loud, not silently as many of us today do when we’re alone. As we noted in our adult education class last week, this is why Eli rebukes Hannah when she atypically for that time is praying silently. As we read in I Samuel 1:12–14: “12 As [Hannah] kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, ‘How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.’” Well Hannah does clear this up with Eli but the point is that because she prayed atypically—or silently as we do—Eli mistakenly concluded she must be drunk. Positively, this practice of praying aloud is also why you and I are privileged to have recorded for us so many prayers throughout Scripture, including Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. We know what he prayed because he prayed out loud.
So the issue with the hypocrites Jesus is addressing isn’t that they were praying out loud for that would have been the custom of the day. The problem is that the reason for their praying out loud is that others might see them. Jesus replaces this “don’t” of praying with a “do” of praying. Instead of praying aloud, standing in the synagogues and on street corners as the hypocrites did, the disciples should pray privately—in their room—closing the door, and so pray to an audience of one, their Father, who, unlike a public audience, is unseen.
Now what are we to do with the fact that the Father to whom we pray is unseen or secret? This is one of the mysteries of prayer, isn’t it? This point, too, has come up as we’ve been considering Paul Miller’s book on prayer. As we discussed some of the reasons why prayer can be difficult for us, Donna brought up this very one—because we can’t see God. Unlike other persons—human persons—whom we can see and who also talk back to us audibly, God is Spirit. As such, he can neither be seen nor heard. But this is no surprise or cause for concern for Jesus—who is God in the flesh and therefore is God seen and heard by the disciples, not hidden and silent. As one who is fully God and fully human, Jesus is able to reassure his disciples that even though our Father in heaven is unseen, nonetheless he does indeed hear and see us. And, as God—as we also saw in last week’s passage on the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16)—God knows our hearts.
Because he knows our hearts, our Father in heaven knows what is motivating us to pray. If our motive is to be seen by others, then the very act of being seen will serve as its own reward. We’ll have received what we sought, namely, the admiration of others. But if our motive is to lay our hearts—and concerns—and anxieties—and joys—and cares—and confusion before our heavenly Father, seeking his wisdom and his discernment, then we should pray for his sake, not for the sake of impressing others. So Jesus tells his disciples that when they pray in secret then this heavenly, though unseen Father, will nonetheless see them and reward them. In other words, he will be responsive to their prayers.
Jesus’ next “don’t” of praying is that when you pray, don’t “keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” So, again, not only should we not pray like hypocrites who pray for the sake of being heard by others, but we also shouldn’t pray like pagans who pray to their gods thinking that babbling—talking rapidly and continuously, or impulsively, or carelessly—will somehow make their gods more responsive to their prayers due to their many words. The point of prayer isn’t to convince God that he should listen to us. No, Jesus tells us, it’s just the opposite. We don’t need to do this—we don’t need to be like babbling pagans when they pray to their gods—because our Father, the one true Father, verse 8, “knows what [we] need before [we] ask him.”
But this raises another question for us, doesn’t it? If God knows what we need before we ask him, then what is the purpose of prayer? Why should we bother asking God if he already knows the needs of our hearts? I’ll return to this point.
Let’s turn to the “dos” of prayer—to the positive instruction Jesus provides about prayer in The Lord’s Prayer. If praying to impress others or God isn’t the way to go when we pray, then how should we pray? We should begin, verse 9, by addressing our Father in heaven. We shouldn’t pray, “Hey, God, whoever you are!” But “Our Father.” God isn’t a power, he’s a Person. God isn’t a stranger; he’s a Person. And he isn’t just a person; he’s a person of the closest and most caring kind—he’s our Father. As fathers and parents in general ought to be, God always is—he cares for us. My earthly father is no longer alive, but if ever as an adult I told him he didn’t need to worry about me, he would gently and lovingly remind me that no matter how old I was, he would indeed worry, for I would always be his daughter and he would never stop being my father. How much more true this is of our heavenly Father! Isn’t it comforting to know that no matter how old we are, God is always going to love and care for us? He will always be a father to us, someone who seeks to lovingly raise and guide us according to his will and ways.
But God isn’t simply a Father, he is our Father. We aren’t God’s only child but rather all who know and love him are his children and therefore as his children, we are also siblings, brothers and sisters, to each other. So not only are we never alone because our heavenly Father ever hears and watches over us, but we needn’t be alone because we are surrounded by others who are also children of the very same Father. Though our heavenly Father may be unseen, his children are flesh and blood. As such, God will often use these children, our siblings, to enable us to see him—to see and experience his love and provision in our lives. [Example of Lissa and Susan stopping in Monday after we had put Mika down—Ron & I not hungry, trying to figure out what to eat—doorbell rings and Lissa there with treats—saw me crying and Susan turned car off and came in—after they left, Ron and I felt better and were hungry]
Further, the Father to whom we pray is in heaven. He is not only our Father but, as Martin reminded us a few weeks ago, our King. As King, God is ruling this world. Nothing in it escapes his notice—not the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28), not the hairs on our head, not the sparrow that falls (Matthew 10:29–31). Though we may lose sight of this during times when we are confronted with evil and suffering in this world, nothing is outside of our heavenly Father’s notice, care, and rule.
Too, Jesus says that his disciples should pray “hallowed be your name” to their Father in heaven. “Hallowed” or “hallow-ed” as we often say, isn’t the most familiar word to us. To “hallow” is to honor as holy. And though we tend not to associate the observation of Halloween at the end of the month with holiness, in the 8th century, Pope Gregory moved the existing All Martyrs Day from May 13 to November 1st and expanded it to include all saints in addition to martyrs. So the day before All Saints Day was All Hallows Eve or Even—our “Halloween.” How far we’ve come from celebrating holiness to celebrating ghosts, witches, and goblins….
Returning to our passage, though our heavenly Father is our Father, we should never forget that he is also holy and that he cares about our holiness for he desires that we take on his character. God who has made us in his image knows best what is required for us to grow and flourish. We are called to be holy because he is holy—which is another way of saying we are called to be like him and we are to depend upon him for all things; we are to aspire to the moral and spiritual integrity spelled our for us in his Word, turning from temptation and selfishness to our holy Father that we, like him, might be selfless and seek to love and care for others.
Another “do” of praying we find in verse 10 is to pray that our Father’s kingdom would come and that his will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Have you ever considered that, at least in the heavenly realm, God’s will is ever being done? Here in the earthly realm, it’s easy to forget this for we, on a daily basis, are confronted with suffering and evil. Recent events in the news are a constant reminder of this—the bombing of a Doctors without Borders medical clinic; the tragic shooting at the Umpqua Community College campus in Oregon; devastating floods in South Caroline and other places. Don’t we long for God’s will to be done here on earth? Aren’t we desperate to see his will being done here on earth? For God’s will be to be done on earth is for God’s shalom—his peace—to be made manifest here. As I’ve mentioned before, I like Neil Plantinga’s definition of shalom since the word “peace” feels too abstract to me. Plantinga defines shalom as “the way that things ought to be.” (Engaging God’s World)
The way that things ought to be is that both moral evil—evil carried out by human agents—and natural evil—evil that results due to occurrences in the world of nature—are all done away with.
For God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done means that there are no attacks on those who are caring for and healing those who are ailing;
For God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done means that there are no shooters who devastate college campuses;
For God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done means that there are no floods that harm and wreak havoc on people’s lives.
Brothers and sisters, we should ever be praying that our Father’s kingdom come and will be done on earth—even as it is in heaven. And we should remember that in order for this shalom to come about—in order for things to be the way that they ought to be—it may require that we figure out what we can do to bring this about for we are his children who are called to do his will as we seek to spread his Word. If we are weary from the evil we see, then maybe we can figure out a way to make things better and so alleviate some of that weariness from our lives and that of others as well.
The next prayer “do” Jesus tells his disciples to pray is: “Give us today our daily bread.” Before I left Illinois, I was talking with a friend who was leading a seminar on the Lord’s Prayer and he shared that someone had raised the point of how hard we work at not praying for our daily bread. We have bank accounts for a rainy day. We have retirement accounts for the day when we will no longer be able to work. We’re actually very uncomfortable praying for our daily bread—and as such perhaps we’re missing out on an opportunity to see God’s provision. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be prudent with our finances. I think that if we’re able, we should be good stewards of all of our material goods. But I nonetheless appreciate what this friend shared. To pray for our daily bread is a reminder that we are to be grateful even for the next meal we have. So many people across the world don’t know whether they will even have a meal that day, much less three. This is part of the value of praying each time we have a meal. It’s a reminder not to take even something as simple as a meal for granted. It’s a reminder that if we are able to enjoy a daily meal—or two or three—it’s because our loving Father has provided it for us and is taking care of us at the most basic of levels.
In verse 12, Jesus tells his disciples that the next prayer “do” is to ask our Father to forgive us our debts—a word that can also be translated trespasses or transgressions. Each week during the pastoral prayer we have an opportunity to ask our Father’s forgiveness for those times when we haven’t loved him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, or our neighbors as ourselves. And every time we do, he freely bestows his forgiveness upon us. And because, as we’ve already noted, our heavenly Father desires that we behave as he behaves, we, too, are to forgive those who have sinned against us—even, as Jesus reminds Peter, seventy time seven times if need be (Matthew 18:22).
In verse 13 Jesus states that we should also pray that our Father not lead us into temptation—or another possible translation is testing or trial. Now we need to remember that God, being wholly good, will never tempt us with sin for he is holy. But, for reasons we cannot know this side of heaven, he does allow temptation to come. To be a Christian—to be a follow of Jesus Christ and therefore a son or daughter of our Father in heaven—does not mean that we will be spared the effects of the Fall during our earthly sojourn. We know all too well that Christians undergo all of these effects as much as those who don’t know Christ. To be human since the time of the Fall means we will suffer sickness—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual; we will undergo temptation; we will succumb to temptation; we will undergo hardship; we will experience loss; we will experience pain. But the assurance we who know Christ can have is that none of these things can ever—not in this life, not in the life to come—none of these things can ever separate us from God’s love. As Paul proclaims in Romans 8:38–39: “38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Even when God allows these various sufferings and trials to touch our lives, he will never leave us or forsake us, not in this life or the next (Hebrews 13:5 quoting Deuteronomy 31:6).
In the second half of verse 13 Jesus tells his disciple that another “do” of prayer is to ask our Father to deliver us from the evil one—or, again, another possible translation is evil. The reason for the two possibilities is because the form of the adjective may be either masculine—the evil one—or neuter—evil. Regardless, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that Satan is the source of much of the evil we undergo. As Peter reminds believers in I Peter 5:8–9: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” We who live in the comparative luxury of the first world don’t often think of spiritual warfare as being real, but it is. As he did in the garden with our first parents, Adam and Eve, the devil seeks to make us question the truth of God’s Word—did he really say?—and the goodness of God himself—surely God wouldn’t allow us to suffer if he really loved us. But Satan is wrong about God for the devil, not God, is the source of much of the suffering we see. God is our Creator; Satan seeks to be our destroyer.
Now a quick comment on the part of the Lord’s prayer that’s missing here and that we prayed even this morning—“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Why isn’t it here? Well, it’s because all of our Bible translations are just that—translations. Translation committees have to work with the manuscripts available and make judgment calls about what parts of Scripture may or may not have been a part of the original manuscripts. But this needn’t cause us concern for even if this final phrase wasn’t a part of the original autographs, it nonetheless expresses a truth confirmed in other Scriptures—God’s kingdom, power, and glory are indeed forever for he is our King and he is all powerful and all creation does point to his glory or presence. And because our God is eternal, all of these attributes ascribed to him are indeed forever. And all of God’s people said, “Amen!”
Finally, Jesus closes with yet another reminder that we who have been made in God’s image and redeemed by his Son are to seek to be like him for we are to forgive those who sin against us, verse 14, for so our heavenly Father will forgive us. Conversely, verse 15, if we don’t forgive others their sins, neither will our heavenly Father forgive us. What is meant here isn’t some kind of impersonal cosmic karma but rather that as children who are in relationship with our heavenly Father we are called to extend forgiveness to others even as we have been extended forgiveness by our loving, compassionate, and merciful God, unworthy though we may be.
One of the things I’ve been pondering as we’ve been reading and discussing prayer, with Miller as our guide, is the language we use when we talk about prayer. We often say that God has either “answered our prayer” or hasn’t “answer our prayer.” And what we usually mean—what I usually mean—is either that I got or didn’t get what I asked for, respectively. But I’m feeling challenged to change the language I use when talking about prayer. I know it’s common to observe that sometimes God’s answer is “no,” but I’m beginning to think that framing the whole matter of prayer in this fashion is maybe skewed. Maybe “getting” or “not getting” isn’t the point. Maybe there’s something larger than us going on here.
Maybe what the Lord’s Prayer helps us understand about prayer is that by praying—by talking with God and turning to him and understanding him to be our loving Father in heaven and seeking to do his will—we will, in turn, grow in our relationship with him. Maybe the reason we should pray even if he already knows the needs of our hearts is because though he knows us completely, we don’t know him completely. Maybe prayer is the primary means of learning to know and love God—of learning to know his heart.
An analogy Ron came up with as we were talking about this a few weeks ago, is that prayer is akin to eyeglasses. If I were to take off my glasses, I would be able to see you—because I’m far-sighted—but I wouldn’t be able to see my notes. So, too, though God has created us with an ability to see him in nature and in each other and in circumstances both great and small in our daily lives, it is prayer that enables us to recognize his presence in our lives. Jesus’ teaching on the Lord’s Prayer emphasizes how we, who have been made in our heavenly Father’s image, can better get to know and be like him. We are his children. Our lives are for his sake. And prayer can equip us to know and enjoy him both now and forever.
Brothers and sisters, why don’t we close by again reciting the Lord’s Prayer, praying together….