Big Idea: Pray privately and simply about all of life, and then tie your prayers to how you live.
There’s something strange about prayer.
We all do it. Prayer is natural and instinctive, even to atheists. A survey earlier this year in England found that 1 out of 5 non-religious people pray. Henry, a self-described agnostic, kneels beside his bed every night and prays, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, before praying for his loved ones. He said he had no idea if God heard his prayers, and said the act of praying did not make him feel better. “I wonder why I don’t stop doing it. Sometimes I feel it’s a kind of hypocrisy.”
On the other hand, we all find prayer hard. I like the honesty of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “There is nothing that tells the truth about us as Christian people so much as our prayer life. Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer.”
In his book, The Praying Life, which I can’t recommend highly enough, Paul Miller lists some of the reasons why prayer is so hard:
The minute we pray, all kinds of other things crowd our minds.
- We’re confused about what even makes a good prayer.
- Prayer can quickly become dull. We make a list, but then get bored praying through it.
- We’re used to being busy. Taking time to pray seems so hard when there are so many things to do.
- Nothing seems to happen. If our prayers are answered, we wonder if it would have happened anyways. If they’re not answered, why did we pray?
- When we pray, nobody responds. How do we even know that God is listening?
I don’t know anyone who can’t relate to these. That’s what’s funny about prayer. We can’t not pray. There’s something inside us that compels us to pray to God. But at the same time, we don’t know how to pray. Prayer is the hardest thing we do as Christians.
Jesus Teaches Us to Pray
That’s why it’s so important that we read what Jesus has to say about how to pray.
Jesus is teaching us how to flourish and live well. He wants us to live so that our inner worlds and outer worlds match, so that we don’t just pretend to love people, but really do; we don’t just pretend to love God by playing religious games, but we love God from the heart.
Jesus teaches us to avoid showing off in prayer. He doesn’t want us to pray to impress others — which is really foolish anyway, when you think about it. Imagine if I took Charlene out for a fancy dinner, and when she asked me what the special occasion is I said, “Oh, nothing. I just thought it would really impress all of my friends. I can’t wait for them to see what a great husband I am!” Why in the world would I sacrifice what matters most — intimacy with someone I care about — for the applause of the crowd? It’s ludicrous. Don’t play the game. When we try to impress others with our devotion to God, we lose the approval of the only one whose opinion really counts.
But Jesus doesn’t just tell us to avoid showing off in our prayers. Jesus helps us learn how to pray.
I want to be as practical as possible today. Jesus gives us clear, practical advice on how to pray. Let’s get started.
First: Pray in Private
Jesus says in verse 6: “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.”
Okay, so let’s make this really clear and simple. Develop the habit of praying alone, with nobody knowing, for the rest of your life. Because you do this in secret, nobody will ever know that you do this.
But God will. The reward couldn’t be greater. “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Everything in you will fight against this. You won’t feel like doing this a lot of days. But this is a habit that’s worth pursuing, a habit that will pay off like you wouldn’t believe.
A year or so, I began to think about the people in my life who have taught me the most. Like you, I’ve had some people who’ve really changed me. I began to think about what made them so impactful.
I began to realize that they consistently practiced a few habits. They weren’t perfect by any means. But they consistently did a few things that made a big difference in their lives. One of them is that they developed the habit of praying in secret. You could tell, because if you ever heard them pray, you knew it was real.
I want to become like them. I’ve learned that there are three core habits that we must practice if we want to become like them, and one of them is consistent, private prayer.
I don’t want to be prescriptive about what it looks like. It will probably look different in your life than it does in mine. But just start doing this regularly. I agree with B.J. Fogg, who’s developed an approach to building habits called Tiny Habits. Begin small, so ridiculously small that you can’t help but succeed. Don’t begin by trying to pray for a half hour a day. Begin by praying for ten seconds a day, and build from there. If you want to go longer, fine, but keep your goal so ridiculously small that you can’t help but keep it.
Start to pray in private, even for a few minutes a day. Jesus says that if we do this, we’ll get the greatest reward of all, the reward that can only come from God: earthly blessing and a joy that can’t be taken away. You’ll receive the gift of God himself.
Second: Pray Simply
I love how Jesus tells us to pray.
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 6:7-8)
Jesus tells us to avoid praying to impress others. Now he tells us to avoid praying using a formula, thinking that if we get the words right that we’ll somehow impress God. Some non-Jews seemed to think that the quantity of their words mattered to God, like there had to be a certain word count before God heard them. It’s not about ritual. It’s not about getting the right words or the right number of words. Pray simply, Jesus says. Simply express what’s on your heart to God.
Sometimes the simplest prayer is the best prayer. We don’t have to get our words right. We just need to pray. Jesus assures us: we don’t have to get the words right. God already knows what we need. The goal in prayer is not to tell God something he doesn’t know, or to convince him to hear us. It’s to commune with God who already knows and cares.
I love what Jared Wilson writes in his book The Imperfect Disciple:
Look, prayer is spilling your guts. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be tidy. It doesn’t have to be particularly eloquent or even particularly intelligent…Spilling our guts in prayer is how we process God’s words to us. Prayer is how we interact with our friend Jesus.
You can do this, right? If something is on your mind, tell God about it. I love what Paul writes:
…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6).
Whatever is on your mind, tell God about it. Don’t dress it up. Just speak to him. Don’t think you need the right words. Just tell God about whatever’s on your mind.
Third: Pray About All of Life
You may think that, because of what Jesus is saying, that prayer is just freestyle, like we can just pray about whatever we want. You’d be right and wrong. We can pray about whatever is on our mind. But it’s helpful to have some structure so that our prayers have something to build on.
It’s like a concert I attended recently I loved the way the musicians played. They knew the songs, but they didn’t just get on stage and play them. They improvised. Within the structure of the songs, they played. They combined structure and spontaneity. They needed both. If it was all structure, it wouldn’t have been worth hearing. If it was all spontaneity, it would have been chaos. Good music blends both.
It’s the same with prayer. Jesus offers us a model prayer so that we can begin to build our own prayers. “The Lord’s Prayer stretches from the Father at the beginning to the devil at the end, from heaven to hell, and in between in six brief petitions everything important in life” (Frederick Bruner).
Jesus gives us this model prayer, and divides it up into two sections: prayers about God, and prayers about people.
When it comes to God, Jesus tells us to begin to approaching God as our Father. We’re so used to saying this that I think we tend to forget how amazing this is. There are two ways to look at God. One is to see him as supreme ruler of the universe. He is this, of course! The other way is to see him as our Father. The amazing thing: Jesus tells us to approach God as our Father — as someone who is intimately connected with us, and who cares about all the details of our lives. God knows you. God cares. He has all the time in the world for you.
When it comes to the content of this model prayer, I want to keep it simple.
Pray About God
“…hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10)
We’d forget this if Jesus didn’t tell us to do this. That’s why we need this structure that Jesus gives us. Jesus gives us three ways to pray for essentially the same thing. Pray that God’s reign to become a full reality. Right now we live in the condition that 1 John 5:19 describes: “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” That’s why life is so hard. Pray and long for the day that heaven invades earth, there’s no more of the garbage that makes life so hard. Pray for Jesus to come again and set this world right.
What this means, as well, is that we can come like children to our Father. One of the best things I saw on Facebook this week was a little girl edging her way onto a diving board in fear, and then launching herself in the arms of her father in the pool. She was scared about a lot of things, but she had no fear of throwing herself at her father. That’s how we can approach God. Throw yourself at him. He cares.
Pray About People
Then pray about people. Pray about life. God cares about our regular, everyday lives.
- Pray about your needs. “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Pray for daily bread. Pray for God’s daily provision of your basic needs. Do you see how real this is? Pray for God to provide the money you need to eat and live. God cares about this! He’s your Father. Of course he cares.
- Pray about your sins and relationships. “…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Don’t you love how well Jesus knows us? He just assumes that we’re going to mess up. And instead of hiding it from God, he tells us to bring it to God. Bring your worst to God. Tell him everything. He’s not shocked. He’s ready to forgive. “There is mercy for a sinner, but there is no mercy for the man who will not own himself a sinner” (Spurgeon).
- Pray for protection. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus is not saying that God tempts us. James 1:13 tells us that he doesn’t. He does say teach us to pray for strength to resist temptation, for strength and deliverance from temptations from Satan who hates us. If you’re struggling in an area, our temptation is to try to struggle on our own. Jesus tells us not to do this. Ask for God’s help. Tell him where you’re struggling. He wants to help you.
I love this prayer, because it brings all of our life under God. You’ll notice that it’s meant to be prayed with others — the words are in the second person, like “Our Father…” and so on. Pray in secret, but also pray with others.
Pray in private. Pray simply. Pray about all of life. And then there’s one more thing:
Finally: Tie Your Prayers to How You Live
You would expect Jesus to finish his teaching on prayer by saying, “That’s how you pray.” But he doesn’t. Jesus finishes with a surprising statement:
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. (Matthew 6:14-15)
What’s this about?
It’s a variation of the same theme that Jesus has been talking about in this sermon. Jesus insists that our insides and outsides match. He will not put up with us praying and then ignoring his concern for our personal relationships. God cares about relationships. We cannot claim to be forgiven if we do not extend forgiveness to others.
Jesus wants us to pray. But this prayer can and must spill into our lives and change everything. We must pray, and then that prayer must spill over into how we live our lives.
That’s how you pray.
This is so simple that anyone can do it:
- Pray in private
- Pray simply
- Pray about all of life
- Tie prayer to life
Pray privately and simply about all of life, and then tie your prayers to how you live.
You know what’s amazing about this prayer? Two things.
First — that we’ve been given the most perfect prayer, and it takes only twenty seconds to pray. It’s so simple that a child can understand it. Jesus has put prayer on the bottom shelf for us. He knows how hard it is for us, and so he’s made it as easy as possible. Don’t get me wrong. Prayer is still hard, but not because it’s complicated. Jesus gives us everything we need to know about prayer right here.
But here’s the other amazing thing. God wants to hear from us. We’ve been seriously outmatched here. There’s you and I — little specks, insignificant in a world with billions of people in a universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies. And then there’s God: timeless, holy, all-powerful, holding all of this together. And he not only cares about us, but he sent his Son to give his life for us. He invites you into relationship with him by trusting Jesus. And then he invites you to come because he cares for you.