Is there a wrong way to pray? Of course. You can pray to the wrong gods, in the wrong places, for the wrong reasons. This is one of the reasons why Jesus taught his disciples the difference between right and wrong praying.
The context is the Sermon on the Mount. When the sermon gets to prayer, 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. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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.
“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. . .” (Matthew 6:5-8).
In this passage we see how to pray vs. how not to pray.
How Not to Pray
In Exalting Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Daniel Akin asks this question: Why do people not attend church? He lists various reasons why:
• The church is boring.
• The services last too long.
• I once got hurt in the church.
• The church just wants your money.
• I don’t like organized religion.
• The church is too political.
• My needs aren’t being met.
I would add also that many people don’t go to church because they aren’t believers and don’t love God or his people. Not to mention the idols of expressive individualism and busyness in our culture.
But the most common reason, according to what Akin has heard, is because the church is filled with hypocrites.
Hypocrites. Interestingly, the word hypocrite shows up over 12 times in Matthew’s Gospel alone. In this text on prayer, Jesus gives the example of hypocritical praying as a guideline for how not to pray.
Verse 5: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.” What do these hypocrites do, according to Jesus?
Verse 5b: “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.”
For some people in that day, there were set times of prayers in the morning, afternoon, and evening. For some, even the religious leaders, they would love to go to places of worship and the busiest street corners to pray. Why? In order to be seen by others. They did it for public recognition. In other words, they did this in order to gain a reputation for godliness. This is the essence of hypocrisy.
But it’s not like that kind of praying gets you nothing. I love the honesty of Jesus: “They have received their reward,” he says. The reward is the recognition of others. This is a shallow and fleeting reward compared to what Jesus offers for sincere prayer.
It’s important to note that Jesus is not rebuking all public prayers, but the purpose of praying to be seen by others. Jesus himself prayed publicly, the disciples in Acts often prayed in public, and the OT is filled with many public prayers. It’s certainly fine to pray publicly in church, at your school, at your job, and in other public places, but the context here is not to pray solely to be noticed. This shows that one cares more about what others think than what God thinks.
In addition to praying solely to be seen, disciples of Jesus should not try to manipulate God in prayer.
That’s what Jesus says in 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.”
The ESV uses “empty-phrases.” The NIV gets closer to the rare original word here which can be translated “keep on babbling.” Jesus says the “pagans” do this and when Christians pray like this, they are acting like pagans.
Babbling in prayer is unnecessary. It’s okay to pray for a long time, use repetition, and pour out your heart before the Lord. The Psalms are filled with long laments. The point is not that you cannot pray for a long time or repeat yourself. Rather, the point is, as D.A. Carson says: “. . . disciples should avoid meaningless, repetitive prayer offered under the misconception that mere length will make prayers efficacious.”
Why should we avoid meaningless babbling in prayer?
Jesus answers that in verse 8: “For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Isn’t that an amazing thought? The Creator God of the universe – the One who has no beginning or ending, the one who cannot improve or learn anything — knows you so intimately that he knows what you need before you even ask him. And because of this, you don’t need to try to manipulate God through babbling. He already knows your needs.
In Jesus’s day, one concern might be people who prayed aloud in public to gain the acceptance of others. I wonder if in our day, it’s the opposite: you don’t pray aloud in public because you don’t want to lose the acceptance of others. We’re so afraid of what people think of us that we can’t muster the boldness to pray in a small group setting or pray for someone right there on the spot. The reminder of our Lord here is that we should not fret such things since the point of prayer is to commune with God, not impress others.
How to Pray
The issue here is not whether you should pray, but how and when. And notice Jesus says when you pray, not if you pray. When. Notice the repetition. Jesus says, “When you pray” three times in this one passage. By repeating himself, Jesus shows the importance of his point, and he assumes his disciples will be taking prayer seriously.
So how do you pray? And what do you say?
Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 6:8).
In contrast to praying aloud in public for the purpose of religious acceptance, Jesus encourages his disciples to go into their room, shut the door, and pray. The word “secret” is repeated twice, showing the importance of private prayers. The point here is not that you should only pray in a room with a door closed. The room is meant to symbolize the command to seek a private place to help ensure that you are praying not to get recognition. Disciples of Jesus can pray both private and public prayers, but wherever you are, your motive must not be to impress others.
Jesus says if you do this, he will reward you. We’re not told what the reward is. But, you can trust whether the reward is in this life or the next, it is far better than the reward for public recognition.
The Lord’s Prayer
So what do you actually say when it’s time to pray? After showing his disciples how not to pray, and then how to pray, the Lord gives his disciples a prayer to model — he gives them “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13). It is a powerful prayer for God’s people.
With that said, however, Jesus doesn’t say use these words and no other. It is not a cookie-cutter guide for how to pray every time you pray. But it is a helpful guideline.
Notice the first half of the Lord’s prayer is ruthlessly God-centered. The first half centers on God, the second half centers on the disciples and their needs. Time fails me to go into depth on the Lord’s prayer, but here are some observations:
We Pray to Our Father in Heaven.
Our Father. This shows how prayer is a communal activity, not just an individual enterprise. And we’re told that we can call God Father. This is a staggering truth. On rare occasions in the OT is God called Father. Jesus shows the intimacy, warmth, and love of our God.
We Remember God’s Holy Name.
The word “hallowed” comes from the word “holy.” The desire here is God would be honored by his people and treated as he is.
We Pray for God’s Kingdom Reign and God’s Will.
The “kingdom” of God is God’s rule on earth. We pray that God’s earthly rule will continue to impact those around us. And we pray for his will, not our will, be done. We submit to his sovereign control.
We Pray for Our Physical Needs.
“Bread” is a symbol for all of life’s needs. Jesus gives you permission to pray for your personal needs. Disciples of Jesus must not be self-sufficient and think that they could do just fine without asking God for help.
We Pray for Forgiveness.
We ask the Lord to forgive us as we forgive others.
We Pray for Protection.
I often pray this prayer, “Lord, please protect me from the devil, his servants, and their works.”
From this passage, we learn how not to pray. We learn the importance of secrecy in prayer. And, through the Lord’s Prayer, we get a good guideline of what proper praying looks like. There are many other things we can say about how to pray, but Jesus’s comments on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount are a good place to start.