I must confess with Lloyd-Jones, that “this portion of Scripture . . . is one of the most searching and humbling in the entire realm of Scripture.” We not only sin when we are walking away from God, we also sin in our approaches to God. Sin is a virus that can endure the hostile environment of the prayer closet and turn us sick with pride and hypocrisy. It’s not only that we don’t pray or that we pray badly, it’s that when we do pray, we often pray sinfully.
In these verses, our Lord warns us against two very common problems in prayer: ostentation (vs. 5-6) and vain repetition (vs. 7-8). But embedded in our Lord’s words are not just words of warning and condemnation; they are also full of hope and promise. The whole point of our Lord’s words is not merely to discourage wrong praying but also to encourage true prayer. He wants us to see false prayer for what it is and to love more deeply the God who hears prayer.
And that’s what I want to do this morning. I want to encourage you to pray. And I want to pray the way our Lord teaches us here in these verses.
I. How we are NOT to pray:
1. With ostentation
a. Why people pray this way: to be seen by men
b. Why we should not pray like this: God will reward those who pray in secret
How are (a.) and (b.) connected? The reward that God gives is infinitely greater than any reward men can give. And you cannot have both. God will not reward those who pray in order to be congratulated for their piety. If I want God to bless my prayer life, if I want him to hear my prayers, then I must do it with an eye to him only.
Some evidently have used verse 6 as a reason to forbid all public prayer. But this cannot be what our Lord is teaching here for the very reason that our Lord himself prayed in public. John 17 is such a prayer. And the early church did not understand Jesus to forbid public praying for the church often gathered to pray together (cf. Acts 1:24; 3:1; 4:24-30; 12:12). In fact, these verses demonstrate that God loves to answer prayers offered in the context of the gathered church.
What our Lord is saying is easy enough to understand. It is not that we can only pray in private, but that God alone ought to be the focus of our prayers. He is the only audience that matters, whether we are praying in private or public. When we are praying, it ought to be directed not to those around us but to God. On the other hand, our Lord’s words surely underline the importance of private prayer, of time alone with God. Jesus himself often did this (cf. Luke 5:16; 6:12). If our Lord felt the need for secret prayer, then what excuse do we have to neglect it!
2. With vain repetition, with empty phrases
a. Why people pray this way: they think they will be heard for their many words
b. Why we should not pray this way: Your Father knows what you need before you ask him
As D. A. Carson points out, our Lord’s reference to pagans (Gentiles) in verse 7 is not meant to excuse either the Jews or religious people in general from this accusation. Jesus, after all, was speaking to Jews in these verses and warning them not to pray this way! “Every religious group harbors some who pray repetitiously. So with the Jews of Jesus’ day. He labeled all such praying – even those of his own people – as pagan! ‘Pagans’ are not so much the target as the negative example of all who pray repetitiously.” Even so, even though we are not pagan, that does not mean we are more susceptible to the charge of hypocrisy and ostentation than we are to vain repetition. Sinful beings that we are, we need to be on guard against both.
Why is (b.) a reason we should not pray the way the pagans do? How is it that God’s omniscience is a reason not to pray with vain repetition, with babbling? It would seem that this is not only an argument against praying in a certain way, but an argument against praying altogether.
In order to answer these questions, we must back up and ask a preliminary one: why do people use vain repetitions? Why do we babble in prayer? Jesus gives us the answer: he says that people do this because they think they will be heard for their many words. It seems to me that the mindset behind such praying is belief in a God who does not really care about us, and who therefore needs to be cajoled into meeting our needs through the use of many-worded prayers. In other words, the God to whom the pagans (and many times the not-so-pagan) pray to is a God who has to be coaxed into hearing us. He has to be worn down. Or he has to be impressed. Then, if we have prayed enough, if we have been pious enough, then God will hear us. This seems to be what Jesus is inveighing against.
Thus, when Jesus tells us not to pray like this because our Father knows what we need before we ask him, he is not so much protesting against a lack of belief in the omniscience of God as he is protesting against a lack of belief in the love of God. Of course people who pray believe that God is omniscient (if he is not omniscient, how could they be sure he could hear their prayers in the first place?). But there is knowing about something in the sense of having information about it, and then there is knowing about something in the sense of caring about it. You have this distinction illustrated in Scripture over and over again. God foreknew his people (Rom. 8:29); but this does not mean that God was merely aware of their existence. It goes deeper than that; it means that God loved them before the world began. In our text, the two are combined. God is aware that we have needs, yes. But more than that, as our Father he deeply cares about them. I think that must be one reason why Jesus keeps referring to God, especially as the object of our prayers, as Father. He is reminding us of God’s deep concern and care and love for his children.
You see this in the way Jesus speaks to our anxiety in verses 25-34. In verse 32, he tells us that “the Gentiles seeks after all these things [food and clothing],” but “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” Now that would be no consolation against anxiety if the knowledge of God referred to in verse 32 was merely a reference to God’s omniscience, the bare knowledge that God has of his created universe. Rather, this “knowing” is the knowing of care and love. It is expressed in verse 26 in the words, “Are you not of more value than they [the birds of the air]?” It is expressed in verse 30 in the words, “. . . will he [God] not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” God knows his children in the way any good father knows his children: he knows them in a way that values them and cares for them much more than any other thing in his created world. Therefore, when Jesus says that our Father knows what things we have need of before we ask, he is saying that we need not treat God in prayer as if he didn’t care for us. Those who do so end up just muttering vain repetitions.
In other words, in the pagan way of praying, there is a complete absence of a relationship with God in prayer. There is no drawing near to him. In contrast, when the psalmist differentiates himself from the wicked, he says, “But for me it is good to be near God” (Ps. 73:28). He not only drew near to God, but for him it was a good thing. It was enjoyable, it was a real blessing and delight. That is what prayer ought to be like. It ought to be like children wanting to be with their father.
Thus, prayer is not some tactic that we wield to coax God into doing our bidding. Prayer is not some religious technique we use to impress God so that things go well for us and not badly. Rather, prayer is that part of a real relationship with God in which we speak to him as a child would speak with a father. It is not that cold, mechanical performance which the pagans call prayer; it is the natural expression of a warm and personal fellowship with God the Father.
c. Does this mean prayer should be purely spontaneous and never planned?
What about discipline in prayer? Where does this come in? If prayer is meant to be the outflow of a relationship with my heavenly Father, should I ever make myself pray? Should I have stated times for prayer? Won’t this kind of regimen gradually erode the relational aspect of prayer? These are all good questions. The concern lurking behind all of them is that once you introduce discipline into any area of life, it is easy for it to become just another box to check and then go on. And if that happens, you really have stopped praying for all intents and purposes. So is it right to have set times for prayer?
I believe that it is right to have set times for private prayer. It is right to speak of the discipline of prayer. Think of any other relationship that you have. Take marriage, for example. This is meant to be one of the closest earthly relationships that we have here on earth. And certainly, there ought to be a lot of spontaneity in marriage. If everything were planned out, if every act of a married couple was scripted, there would be plenty to worry about. In fact, I would doubt such a marriage could involve real love. But on the other hand, if there is no thought put into the relationship, if there is no discipline involved in marriage, then it will easily fall prey to the forces in this world that destroy marriages. Dates don’t just happen; you have to plan for them, and sometimes a lot of planning goes into them. What’s often surprising, however, is that it is precisely within the context of such rigorous planning that some of the happiest and most spontaneous moments of marriage happen. In other words, marriage proves that spontaneity and discipline and planning are not mutually exclusive. Often they complement, rather than undermine, one another.
The Bible supports this idea of the complementarity of planning and spontaneity. Daniel prayed three times a day (Dan. 6:10), even when it became dangerous to do so. We see Peter and John going up to the temple at “the hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1). When the need for a diaconate arose within the early church, one of the reasons the apostles gave for appointing others to the task was so that they could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). There was as much discipline behind their prayer lives as there was behind their preaching. So, both under the old covenant and under the new covenant, God’s people have pursued a regular life of prayer. Our Lord’s prayer life is described in Luke 5:16 in this way: “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” This indicates a regular prayer life.
Moreover, the fact that our Lord tells us to “go into your room and shut the door and pray” almost demands planning and discipline when it comes to prayer. It is not enough to simply rely on the “flare prayers” that you offer on a wing throughout the day. Yes, the command to “pray without ceasing” demands that every moment of our lives be a constant prayer. But that is no reason to think that we shouldn’t plan for extended times in our Lord’s presence without distraction. Our Lord tells us to go into the closet; shut yourself out from others, from the cares of the day, from the myriad of things that cloud our thoughts and weigh on our hearts. Get alone with God for a time. And plan for it. Because if you don’t plan for that time, there are a thousand things pulling on you that will keep you from entering into the prayer closet. You simply cannot obey our Lord’s command here unless you have a disciplined prayer life.
Nevertheless, it is important to beware against creating a quiet time which is meant more to quiet your conscience than it is to quiet your soul before God. The attitude is what’s important. It is something I have struggled with and I still struggle with it. Let me illustrate this from my own experience. I remember reading one time what a well-known pastor said about himself, that he didn’t beat himself up for not spending 30 minutes a day in prayer. When I read that, it gave me great relief! Why? Because I had thought that any pastor worth his salt spent at least an hour a day in prayer. You see, my heart was all wrong. For me, it was about the clock. I had to spent X amount of hours before the Lord if I was to be worth anything to him. But my prayer time was often really worthless because my heart was not set on God. My eye was on the clock instead of on Christ. It is true that many of the great saints spent many hours in prayer; but they did not do it because they had to, they did it because they wanted to. In the same way, we need to constantly be on guard against this kind of Pharisaical attitude.
d. Another question we could ask in this connection is: should prayer never be scripted?
It depends on what you want to do with the script from which you are praying. If you are doing it to impress God with “beautiful speech,” then I cannot imagine anything more absurd. In fact, that kind of attitude is corresponds exactly with the kind of pagan way of praying that our Lord condemns. Prayer is not meant to be a platform by which we impress God; rather, it is a child coming to his father out of love and trust. We already have our Father’s ear; we don’t need a thesaurus and a dictionary to get his attention.
On the other hand, using words written either in the Bible or by other godly people, can be a means not to engage God’s heart for us but to engage our hearts for God. I think of Hosea’s words to backslidden Israel: “Take with you words, and return to the LORD; say to him, ‘Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips’” (Hos. 14:2). Here is a scripted prayer that Israel was prompted to pray. It was not meant to impress God, but to give them a place to start in their prayers of confession and repentance. If you’re stuck and don’t know where to begin in prayer, I would commend picking up your Bible and going to the Psalms, and then making the psalmist’s prayer your prayer. Take with you words – and I cannot imagine any better words than that of the Bible itself. In fact, the very existence of the “Lord’s Prayer” is reason enough to allow for scripted prayer.
Another thing I have done in the past is to go to one of the epistles and to take a chapter – it doesn’t even have to be a prayer – and to turn each verse into a prayer. Or, one can use books like The Valley of Vision which is a collection of Puritan prayers, or you can turn to Matthew Henry’s A Method of Prayer which is full of Bible verses organized under various headings to get you started. The issue at the end of the day is not whether you are reading a prayer or praying completely extemporaneously but whether in it you are drawing near to God or not.
II. How we are to pray
I am here indebted to Lloyd-Jones’ exposition of the verse. In his commentary on this text, he points out that our Lord’s words indicate that three things are of paramount importance for prayer. They are separation, realization, and confidence. I think he is right on, and so I am going to steal his main points for my own outline.
Let’s begin with separation. Our Lord tells us in verse 6 that we are to go into our rooms away from everyone else and pray to our Father in secret. As we’ve already pointed out, there is a great deal of truth in seeing this separation from a physical standpoint. We need to put some distance between ourselves and others, we need to get alone with God. Moses met God in the burning bush when he was alone. Jacob met God at Bethel when he was alone; he wrestled with the angel when he was alone. Many of the vision granted to the prophets came when they were alone. Jesus withdrew himself from the crowds so he could be alone with God. Even so, we need to get alone with God. The reason for this is that we are human. Distractions are distractions; it doesn’t matter how saintly you are. God, above all things, deserves your full attention at least for some part of the day. Let’s do our best to give it to him.
But it can’t stop there. We need to go on to realization. We can put space between ourselves and the world and still remain separated in our hearts and thoughts from God. So we need to remind ourselves before whose presence we are coming. Our God is the great, the awesome, the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God who rules in heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. And he has promised to hear those who come to him in faith. In prayer, you have, as it were, accompanied the high priest into the Most Holy Place; you have stepped into the presence of God. If we realized this as we should, God would have our complete attention! And yet, we so often just see ourselves in prayer mumbling words to ourselves. Prayer with faith in Christ brings us into the very throne room of heaven; ask, and you shall receive!
Finally, we need to have confidence. It is in that word, “Father.” Our Lord does not teach us to come to God with the words “God Almighty” (although that is not necessarily wrong!), but with the nearest of relationships, that of child to father. It is universally recognized that the love a parent has for a child is one of the strongest emotions and commitments that binds one person to another. It is why it is so shocking when children are abused by a parent. And yet, as Jesus points out: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:11). A child who is loved by his/her father is not going to be afraid to ask father for something. And the child-like confidence they possess is the same kind of confidence that our Lord invites us to in these words.
Perhaps the thing that keeps us from such confidence more than anything else is our sin. But if you belong to Christ, why should it? He is our Father precisely because we have been adopted into the family of God through Christ. “But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God” (Jn. 1:12). “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 Jn. 3:1, KJV). The whole point of our Lord’s words here is that it is pagan to think of prayer as a way to win God’s ear and favor. You already have it in Christ. He is listening because he loves you. So come to your Father. Don’t let the things of the world get in the way. As the hymn puts it, “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 300.
 D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12: EBC, p. 166.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 307-309.