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Part 1

"How Not to Pray"

I was sent an e-mail last month that told this amazing true story. I'm still shaking my head in awe! It happened last summer on Lake Isabella, which is located in the high desert an hour from Bakersfield, California. Apparently, a woman who was new to boating was having problems. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't get her brand new 22-foot Bayliner power boat to perform.

Even when she cranked that throttle all the way down, it wouldn't get up and plane at all. It was terribly sluggish in every maneuver. She knew something had to be wrong. And by George, after paying that much money, she was going to have the company give her a new boat if that's what it took!

After a very frustrating unsuccessful hour, she finally putted into a nearby marina. Maybe someone there could tell her what was wrong. A thorough topside check revealed everything was in perfect working condition. The engine ran fine, the outdrive went up and down just right, the prop was the correct size and pitch.

So one of the marina guys jumped into the water to check the underside. When he came up, he was literally choking on water from laughing so hard. Under the boat, still strapped securely in place was the trailer - wheels, frame, the whole works, man! The trailer!

Can't you just see this lady at the boat launch? She backs her truck down into the water, unhooks the trailer from her truck, and drives her boat away still on the trailer! No wonder it's not working right!

Ladies and gentlemen, there's a right way to launch a boat and there's a wrong way. And this ain't the right way!

And you know what? That's about the way it is in most areas of life: there's a right way and a wrong way. And whether or not you and I get life to work effectively in those areas depends upon whether we're doing things the right way, be it in our friendships, marriage, family, work, sports, hobbies, and even in our spiritual lives. Learning the right principles and techniques and then doing them correctly makes all the difference in the world.

It takes practice. Sure! It takes hard work. Sure! But it sure beats having the throttle cranked all the way down and puttering along because the trailer's still strapped to the boat!

That's why for my first sermon series of the new year I want us to focus on an area of life that can help to transform the rest of life: prayer, how to build a strong spiritual life with Jesus, how prayer can revolutionize our experience of Him and of life. And even in this area of prayer, there's a right way and a wrong way. That's why, to help us with this, Jesus has given us the Lord's Prayer. It's a powerful model for the transforming nature of prayer. The Lord's Prayer.

Our scripture passage for this series will be in Matthew 6. Before Jesus gives the Lord's Prayer, He first describes how not to pray. So today let's look at verses 5-8. In this section, Jesus presents two wrong ways to pray. And after each wrong way, an antidote. Then He gives the Lord's Prayer as a model of the right way (which we'll begin looking at next week).

Wrong-way-to-pray # 1. Verse 5: "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites. They love to stand in the synagogues and on the street corners and pray so people will see them. I tell you the truth, they already have their full reward."

According to Jesus, what's the first wrong way to pray? Is it standing up? Is that the issue here? Are there certain bodily postures or positions that are wrong to pray in? Is it praying in public? Is that the issue here? Are there certain places that are wrong to pray in? Is Jesus condemning the method and mode of praying here?

Jesus isn't dealing with posture or place. He's not discussing method or mode. He's zeroing in on motive. Notice what He calls the praying people He's talking about: "hypocrites." What's a hypocrite? Someone who pretends to be something they're not. A person who assumes a character that doesn't belong to him or her.

Jesus describes the praying hypocrite in this verse as one who intentionally plans his day to be in the most public place possible when the designated prayer times come. You see, every faithful Jew, whenever the clock strikes those times, stops everything, and no matter where he is or who he's with or what he's doing, he stands for prayer. The tense of the verb here implies that this praying hypocrite takes his position and continues to stand in it because he enjoys the public attention.

"When 9:00 a.m., or noon, or 3:00 p.m. roll around, I'm going to make sure I'm at Times Square, or in the middle of rush hour, or in a packed church when I pray, standing up, hands extended, palms facing up, head bowed! Ah-h-h, the traditional religious posture for prayer. And I'm going to stand there as long as I can so everyone will notice me!"

So what's the motive? The real reason the person loves to pray is to be seen by people. The love isn't for prayer it's for praise. And it's not praise from God but praise from people. It's the opportunity, not to pray to God, but to parade a person. As one author put it, not piety, but the reputation for piety is this person's priority. So in reality, this person is praying to people not to God.

Wrong-way-to-pray number one: hypocritical praying.

I remember going through a stage some years ago in which I felt the pressure to be more flowery and impressive in my prayers. I had heard some preachers who used such amazing vocabulary and descriptive language in their prayers. It was as though their prayers were mini-sermons. I watched as people always seemed so impressed and moved by their prayers.

So for a while I tried to imitate the style. I had to pause often in the prayer as I wracked my brain to find wonderful words to use to evoke pictures in people's minds and emotions in their hearts. It felt so unnatural. It was a personal turnoff to me but I had to try and measure up to the popular pray-ers.

Until God finally convicted me: "Greg, you're not praying to Me, you're praying to people. You're a praying hypocrite trying to stand up and be noticed. How can you pretend to be praising Me when in reality you're concerned about people praising you?"

It's like a great preacher once described an ornate and elaborate prayer offered in a Boston Church as "the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience." Hard to get more blatant than that!

Hypocritical praying. So what's the antidote? Jesus continues in verse 6: "When you pray, you should go into your room and close the door and pray to your Father who cannot be seen. Your Father can see what is done in secret, and He will reward you."

What's Jesus' point? Is He saying that only private prayer is acceptable? No. He prayed in public. And so have His disciples all through history. This isn't a statement on private vs. public prayer. It's a statement on attitude and atmosphere in prayer. What's most conducive to meaningful, effective prayer?

The word Jesus uses here for "room" or "closet" is translated by some as "secret chambers." A closed place, shut in for privacy, shut out from distractions. Commentators suggest that most Jews would've immediately thought of the temple, the sanctuary, the innermost room, the Holy of Holies where God had His special dwelling. It was a place marked by silence, separation and seclusion. A place where only the high priest would come in a special act of intercession for the people before God's mercy seat.

So Jesus' statement, "praying in the closet," is a powerful call for us to enter into prayer, wherever we do it, for the purpose of getting alone with God, entering into the secret place of the Most High where we stand naked before Him, as it were, completely exposed inside and out. In that atmosphere of complete vulnerability and honesty, we converse, we commune, we intercede. We shut out worldly distractions or thoughts of what others are thinking about us. Our only thoughts of other people are in lifting them up in intercession before God's throne, so that they, along with us, might experience His mercy and grace.

The antidote to hypocritical praying is acknowledging God's presence. John Stott puts it this way: "Just as nothing destroys prayer like side-glances at human spectators, so nothing enriches prayer like a sense of the presence of God."

The second wrong way of praying Jesus mentions in verse 7: "And when you pray, don't be like those people who don't know God. They continue saying things that mean nothing, thinking that God will hear them because of their many words."

What's Jesus speaking against? The King James Version uses the phrase "vain repetition." This has led many people to condemn the use of repetitive phrases or words in worship whether private or public. I've received a number of letters from people, especially since September, quoting this verse as proof that we shouldn't use contemporary worship songs in church because there's so much repetition in them. Therefore, this kind of music and worship isn't acceptable to God.

Is that what Jesus is talking about here? That it's wrong to repeat His name or other spiritual phrases again and again? Listen, Jesus repeated Himself in prayer, most notably in Gethsemane when He prayed the third time using the exact same words. And maybe He plead more than three times because He was certainly in earnest, wasn't He? "Take this cup from me! Take this cup from me! Take it away! Take it away! Take it away! . . . But not my will, Yours be done. Not my will. Not my will. Not my will. Your will. Your will. Your will." Would we blame Him and call Him unspiritual for repeating phrases in His prayer again and again?

In His parables, Jesus commends perseverance and shameless repetition in prayer. "Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking at the door of God," Jesus says.

The book of Psalms has repetition all throughout it. And Psalms has always been used by Christians of every age, including the Hebrews, as the Church's primary prayer book. So apparently God forgot to let David in on this issue.

So what's Jesus speaking against, as the second wrong way to pray? Once again, as the whole verse shows, the issue lies in the motive. The word literally means "to keep on babbling with idle, useless, empty words." Verbosity without quality. Speaking without thinking. Mindless chatter. Diarrhea of the mouth.

And the biggest issue here is why this is being done. Jesus compares it to the pagans and heathens. They multiply their words and their babbling in order to secure their god's attention. The more they use, the more he connects. That's why the New English Bible translates this way: "The pagans imagine that the more they say, the more likely they are to be heard."

Wrong-way-to-pray number two: mechanical praying. There are a lot of Christians who have developed this into a formula-approach to prayer. If you just say the right words, and say them well enough and often enough, God will respond. It's turning prayer into some kind of magical incantation in order to manipulate God into responding. I've read some Christian books on prayer that take this approach. One author even suggested groaning and moaning to show the depth of our desire to God. That would somehow secure more response.

Jesus says this is the way of pagans not God's children. Why? That brings us to Jesus' antidote to this second wrong way. Verse 8: "Don't be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him."

Does this mean we shouldn't ask? God already knows so why bring it up? No. Jesus is talking about a picture of God here in contrast to the heathen's picture. We pray, not to a god who has to be manipulated and maneuvered into responding, but to a God who as our Father knows what we need and like a Father longs to give us what we need. We ask to remind ourselves that we're His children and we're dependent upon Him.

Jesus' antidote to mechanical praying: acknowledging God's personal, paternal presence.

Therefore, our prayers will not be mindless babbling, all words and no meaning, all lips and no heart. Our prayers will be heartfelt, mindful conversations with a Father who loves us and willingly provides for us. What a privilege prayer really is when it's done the right way!

Wrong-way-to-pray #1: hypocritical praying. Antidote: acknowledging God's presence. Wrong-way-to-pray #2: mechanical praying. Antidote: acknowledging God's personal, paternal presence. Which way do you pray? Which kind of God do you pray to? It really does make a difference!

A five-year-old said grace at family dinner one night. "Dear God, thank you for these pancakes . . . ."

When he concluded his prayer, his parents asked him, "Johnny, why did you thank God for pancakes when we're having chicken."

He smiled and said, "I thought I'd see if He was paying attention tonight."

Good news today, my friends: we don't have to play tricks on God to see if He's paying attention. We don't have to try to impress others or Him to be heard. Cause He's already listening ... 'cause He already loves us.

Don't you want to spend time more often in His presence? Isn't it time to unstrap the trailer from the boat and really power up?

Greg Nelson, CVC Senior Pastor
January 8, 2000