How Not To Pray
By Lee Jones
No one is satisfied with his or her prayer life. Even the most devout among us would say that his or her times of prayer often seem less than effective, or fall short of ideal.
Prayer is a spiritual discipline that’s always in practice, and before we judge ourselves against our heroes, we should make sure we’re avoiding the pitfalls scripture points out.
In the prayer closet, there’s no temptation to perform, no points to score, because only YHWH can hear you, and He surely will reward His children.
So much of Jesus’ corrective decrees are given to the Pharisees and, in an attempt to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees, we do well to listen to Jesus’ words on prayer. In this passage, Jesus specifies two particulars regarding how not to pray, and highlights the right motivations for prayer.
Verse 5 paints a picture of God-dishonoring public prayer. Jesus says that hypocrites stand and pray, which is not bad. He says they do this in the synagogues and street corners, and that’s not the part that’s worthy of critique. The sin is in the fact they do all this for man’s empty praise. You could say the most eloquent prayer, speaking loudly in church or in public, and be doing it for appearances’ sake, and be committing sin. These men were boosting their own reputations by taking the ordinances of YHWH and turning them into improv theater. As said earlier, they have already been rewarded.
Instead, Jesus tells His people to pray in their “inner room,” a closet-like space. It would have been a room inside the house that is not often occupied, maybe even a storage space. I’m personally grateful for this command of Jesus because I pray with more focused devotion in a quiet place where worldly distractions are shut out for a little while, behind a closed door. In the prayer closet, there’s no temptation to perform, no points to score, because only YHWH can hear you, and He surely will reward His children.
The next critique is on vocabulary. This sin is a Gentile problem, “meaningless repetition.” This is beyond certain prayer tics like overusing the word “just” or saying “Father God” or “Lord” repeatedly in prayer while you think about what words to say next. It’s more pagan than that, like use of magic words in folk religions or using incantations as a way to get what you want (like in I Kings 18:26). The Greek word used here, which is equivalent to meaningless repetition, can mean stammering or idle repetition. Reminds me of the droning of a nun and her sisters I heard on television, repeating the rosary over and over with no inflection for an hour. You can hear them attempting to fill up the “treasury of merit” not that differently than the way you stand at a gas station, holding the pump handle at full blast trying to fill up your car as fast as possible.
Or perhaps think of this kind of behavior as like compulsive door-knocking, like an impatient kid on Halloween. The pagans figured they could get their pet god to answer them faster or better if they kept asking him for the same things with the same words over and over.
Jesus is pretty clear. Just stop it. Don’t be like that. You’re not informing God of anything He doesn’t already know, and don’t presume God is obligated to give you what you ask because you’re playing word games.
That’s the common denominator in this passage. Both negative examples takes YHWH’s ordinance of prayer and twist it to serve man’s self-interested ends. The banner over the entire Christian life, which encompasses prayer, is “Glory to God alone.” There is no justification for using prayer to merely gratify ourselves. Rather, as Jesus teaches, we should approach our lives with humility, especially in our relationship to the Almighty God. Without the imputed righteousness of Christ, I deserve nothing less than to be vaporized, so I must never become presumptuous like the Pharisees.
God knows my needs, and yet the prayers of His people are precious to Him. That should never cause us to puff out our chests, or become perfumers, or vain attempts to operate a divine slot machine. Prayer is a precious spiritual discipline, a delicious means of grace, that should be treasured by God’s people, and not to be used as a punchline or a cattle prod or a performance.
Glory to God alone.