And When You Pray… (Part 1)

Praying angel statueBecoming Mormon

Some of you may already be aware of where my “formal” spiritual journeys began. Neither of my parents were religious while I grew up. My dad was, theoretically, Catholic…and my mom was just as theoretically Lutheran.

So they had me baptized as a Methodist as a toddler.

A few years later…maybe when I was six?…they gave my me a choice of whether I wanted to continue to attend Sunday school at Canaan United Methodist Church (although I don’t know if “United” was in its title back then).

How do think a six year-old kid with no true spiritual life at home decided?

Zoom forward to fifteen year-old Alan. Although I think I may have said a simple prayer every night and definitely believed there was a God, I was far from saved. Then my parents had Mormon missionaries over…and what they taught seemed to make a lot of sense.

However, fifteen year-old Alan did not “get religion.”

Now shift ahead to maybe 20 year-old Alan…for 52 year-old Alan the timing of the past gets foggier and foggier… ūüôā

At that point I decided (a) that if there was truth in the physical world there is truth in the spiritual world and (b) that I wanted to know it. I was, and hopefully remain, a very logical person…and wanted the truth about God.

And based on my short spiritual history, guess who I went to to start that search?

[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the “extras” that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]

The church whose missionaries’ presentation seemed so logical to begin with.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons.

And I became a member.

How to Pray

Obviously, given that I am now a Church of Christ minister, I came to realize that as logical their theology was the way they presented it, it fell apart if you accept the Bible’s authority and…logically…apply what Scriptures teaches as a test of Latter-day Saint doctrine. They are a false, non-Christian faith…as much as I still personally find their church appealing and am very fond of their members who I know.

However, the reason they came to mind again this week is one thing they taught that has stuck with me is how to pray. I cannot remember if it was the original missionaries or folks in the local congregation I joined, but they had a specific formula right from the opening “Heavenly Father.” The good news is…at least in my fuzzy memory…they didn’t teach me that if I followed their prescribed form it somehow bound God to answer…just that it was the correct form.

My question for you is…is there a right way to pray?

Let’s see what Jesus says in Matthew 6:5-15:

5¬†“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. 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.

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. 8¬†Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9¬†Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

10  Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

11  Give us this day our daily bread,

12  and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13  And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I know that is quite a long reference, but I do think it clearly answers the question, “Is there a right way to pray?”

The answer is yes.

Otherwise, why would Jesus twice say, “And when you pray” followed by, “Pray then like this”?

There is a right way to pray.

At this point I would like to note I have done two sermons on prayer…and those verses, “Praying Like a Pagan (Part 1)” and “Praying Like a Pagan (Part 2).” They are more complete treatment of the subject than today’s will be.

And, at this point, I’d also like to admit that I am a horrible example when it comes to prayer. I get caught up in my days and do not pray as often or as long as I should. Not that frequency or length matter as much as other things we will touch on today…but I can use your prayers that I become more faithful in mine.

Do Not…

Today we’ll touch on two things about how to pray…with sub-principles…and the first is from the beginning of what we just read. Do you remember how the first two paragraphs of Matthew 6:5-15 started out?

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.”

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do…”

First principle for prayer:

Do not pray like Jesus said not to.

Pretty simple, eh?

And how should we not pray?

What did the hypocrites do? Let’s review Matthew 6:5 again:

5¬†“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.

Hypocrites pray selfishly. Prayer is supposed to be between you and God…with God as the focus.

A hypocrite’s prayer is between them and their audience…with them as a focus.

From that we get two sub-principles to “Do not pray like Jesus said not to”:

  • Do not pray selfishly
  • Do not pray for show

How about verses 7 and 8…what can they teach us about how not to pray?:

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. 8¬†Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:7-8).

What do you think it means by “empty phrases”?

Is something from the heart an “empty phrase”?

No.

Is something that you pray only because someone has told you should say it an “empty phrase”?

Probably.

Do empty phrases accomplish anything in prayer?

No.

Please also notice how it says Gentiles “think that they will be heard for their many words.”

God is not “woken up” by wordy prayer. As Jesus also taught, “Your father knows what you need before you ask him.”

And if you think about it, those words against “empty phrases” and “many words” are both basically saying, “Don’t think you can control God with your prayers.” Like there is some magic spell…a way of asking…that will suddenly force (or cajole) God to give you what you want.

Of course, if you are familiar with it, you may ask how this intersects with the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8:

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2¬†He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3¬†And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4¬†For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5¬†yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’¬†” 6¬†And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7¬†And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8¬†I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

That does appear to say that if we just keep bugging God enough He’ll give us what we request.

But, we shouldn’t make that mistake because Luke says specifically what we should take from it…

“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose hear.”

Which, means again, nothing you can say during prayer will force God’s hand.

God was being contrasted to the bad judge, not compared to him.

Taking all this into account…principle #1 with its sub-principles is:

  • Do no pray like Jesus said not to
    • Do not pray selfishly
    • Do not pray for show
    • Do no pray thinking you can control God with your prayer

Do…

Being told not to do something isn’t fun, is it? So let’s flip from “do not” to “do.”

Our second principle is:

Pray like Jesus said to.

And we already have two sub-principles from the parable we read about the persistent widow, which began with:

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart (Luke 18:1).

The two sub-principles:

  • Pray constantly
  • Don’t lose heart

With “pray constantly,” don’t forget Paul’s simple words in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing

As for the second one, “don’t lose heart,” let’s turn to John 16:26-27:

26 In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.

Why shouldn’t you lose heart?

Because the God you pray to “himself loves you”! Now, that is good news, isn’t it?!

Okay, now it’s time for our rapid-fire sub-principle section. After telling us how not to pray, Jesus then says:

9 Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

10  Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

11  Give us this day our daily bread,

12  and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13  And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:9-13).

The first couple verses (9 & 10) lead to a few sub-principles to “Pray like Jesus said to”:

  • Remember who you are praying to
  • Pray that others will recognize who God is too
  • Pray for God’s will versus what you want

Do those all make sense…or do you think I’ve read too much into verses 9 and 10?

Notice it is not just any father you are praying to…it is the one in heaven. God Almighty. The Most High. Creator of heaven and earth.

Remember who you are praying to.

Notice also in those two verses how we should pray that God’s name be hallowed…or as the Holman Christian Standard Bible translates it, “Our Father in heaven, Your name be honored as holy.” Thus…

Pray that others will recognize who God is too.

Finally…it’s not that we shouldn’t ask God for what we want…but ultimately…which should win…our desires or God’s will?

No brainer for a true Christian, eh?

Pray for God’s will versus what you want.

Continuing in Matthew chapter 6, Jesus then goes to “Give us this day our daily bread.” Easy sub-principle from that one:

Look to God for your needs.

Remember, the Father loves you Himself…so ask him for what you need!

Of course, this may seem odd given Jesus just said that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” So, if God knows what we need, why doesn’t He just run with it and provide it?

Because we need to look to the right source for our needs.

Whether it be bread…or forgiveness…or protection from temptation…

Everything.

Now, that doesn’t mean we sit around and just pray for everything…expecting it to magically fall from heaven. As Paul said, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10b). You should help provide your own bread…or visit the food bank if you are running short…or…visit the welfare office…

That is not showing a lack of faith in God.

However, you also must not forget who the true source of all your blessings is. It not your employer…a charitable organization…the government…not even your church. Do not depend on them or your family or your friends…or yourself for that matter…

Look to God for your needs.

Now, I snuck in our last two sub-principles to “Pray like Jesus did.” They were from these verses:

12  and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13  And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:12-13).

  • Ask God for forgiveness
  • Ask God to protect you from temptation

I’m kind ‘a hopin’ that “Ask God for forgiveness” is a no-brainer…we’ve frequently discussed 1 John 1:9:

9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

And we’ve discussed how all of us mess up all the time…so as we pray constantly…let’s thank God for His faithfulness to forgive…and ask for it!

As for our final sub-principle, “Ask God to protect you from temptation”…you may rightly note the verse instead says, “And lead us not into temptation.” That sounds more like, “Please don’t set us up God”…but don’t forget what James says in James 1:13-14:

13¬†Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14¬†But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.

Who does God tempt?

No one.

Does God tempt you?

No.

Instead, I like what the English Standard Version Study Bible suggests for verse 13:

The word translated “temptation” (Gk. peirasmos) can indicate either temptation or testing (see notes on 4:1; James 1:13). The meaning here most likely carries the sense, “Allow us to be spared from difficult circumstances that would tempt us to sin” (cf. Matt. 26:41). Although God never directly tempts believers (James 1:13), he does sometimes lead them into situations that “test” them (cf. Matt. 4:1; also Job 1; 1 Pet. 1:6; 4:12).1

So, God may not tempt you…but He definitely has control over what level of temptation…what level of trial…you might go through.

Ask God to protect you from temptation.

Whether by not leading you into it…or just in the natural temptations that surround us in this fallen world 24 by 7.

Ask God to protect you from temptation.

By the way, good news is that we know how God will answer that prayer:

13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Ask God to protect you from temptation.

Wrapping Up

Funny thing is that when I first imagined this sermon, I thought it would be short and sweet.

However, as I was composing it, it became clear it would need to be a two-parter like “Praying Like a Pagan” was.

So, this is part one of two of “When You Pray…”

To wrap up part one, let’s go over our principles and sub principles:

  • Do not pray like Jesus said not to
    • Do not pray selfishly
    • Do not pray for show
    • Do no pray thinking you can control God with your prayer
  • Pray like Jesus said to
    • Pray constantly
    • Don’t lose heart
    • Remember who you are praying to
    • Pray that others will recognize who God is too
    • Pray for God’s will versus what you want
    • Look to God for your needs
    • Ask God for forgiveness
    • Ask God to protect you from temptation

How’s that for a list? So for so good?

Any you disagree with?

Next week we’ll get to the third primary principle in part two of “And When You Pray…”

Pray like Jesus did.

See you then!

Footnotes

1Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1832). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


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