Improving Our Prayer-Life!
Lord God, our dear Savior and Redeemer—we come before You this day to hear Your word, to sing Your praises, and to offer our prayers to You. Please watch over and guide our worship today. Open our minds to Your truths, open our lips to praise Your name, fill our hearts with gratitude and wisdom so that we might properly thank You for Your many blessings and lay before You our concerns and needs. Yes, bless us with Your presence this day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
God wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of His truth! He made Ezekiel "a watchman" over His Old Testament people to proclaim His truths to unbelievers and believers alike. We have been called upon to be God’s "witnesses" (cf. Acts 1:8) proclaiming His truths to the people of our New Testament era. Let us do so faithfully, for the salvation of their souls as well as our own!
Let us continue to pray! Let us pray for the spread of God’s word, for our brethren throughout the world, for protection from Satan and all who would harm us, for faithfulness and zeal, and finally, for a growing understanding and appreciation of God’s love and Jesus’ patience!
Text: Matthew 6:5-15
When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
In Christ Jesus, who teaches us how to pray, dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Twenty-five years ago Charles Swindoll, a Christian pastor, professor, and author, wrote a book entitled Improving Your Serve. It is a book that I have enjoyed reading a number of times—a book that I have had quite a few high school students read over the years. In the book Swindoll quotes Jesus’ words, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28) and demonstrates that we find our greatest purpose and fulfillment in life when we follow Jesus’ example of serving others. Swindoll repeatedly points to Jesus’ words and example, and lets Jesus instruct us concerning the will of God in the matter of service.
Jesus, while primarily our Savior, also serves as our Instructor through His word in many areas of our lives. In our text, which is part of His Sermon on the Mount, He teaches us about prayer. Let us consider Jesus’ instruction using as a theme a modification of the title of Swindoll’s book—IMPROVING OUR PRAYER-LIFE! We shall see that in our text Jesus teaches us that our prayers are to be personal, meaningful, focused, and are to flow from penitent hearts!
Jesus begins His instruction concerning prayer with these words: “When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.” Jesus wants us to know that our prayer-life is a personal matter between each of us and our God. Prayer is not intended to be a public demonstration of our faith and piety, but is rather a private conversation with our Savior and Lord! When Jesus here speaks of “hypocrites” He was no doubt thinking of many of the religious leaders of that day. Just a few days before His death, Jesus condemned those leaders repeatedly for their hypocrisy! (cf. Mt. 23:13,15,23,25,27, 29) Jesus knew that these individuals publicly pretended to be godly, while privately they were not, so He condemned them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers!” (Mt. 23:14)
In Jesus’ day the customs surrounding praying was different than our own. When we pray, we usually bow our heads and fold our hands—emphasizing humility and supplication. In Jesus’ day the Jews would pray looking up to heaven with their arms lifted up—emphasizing looking to God and receiving blessings from Him. Both customs are perfectly acceptable, but the custom in Jesus’ day was abused by the religious leaders. It was hard not to notice the scribes and Pharisees as they stood praying in the synagogue or on the street corner with face and arms lifted high. The scribes and Pharisees liked to be seen praying and they received their “reward,” as Jesus put it—the praise of men: “Oh, aren’t they religious!”
Godly prayer is a matter of you and me quietly and devoutly approaching our Savior and communicating to Him our innermost thoughts. To emphasize the opposite of standing on a street corner, Jesus instructs us, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” Jesus is not saying that all prayers must be private, or that when we pray in church we are violating God’s will—certainly not! But the point of prayer is not to be seen by men, but rather to be heard by God! God promises to hear and respond to our prayers and certainly will “reward (us) openly” by answering them!
Consequently, feel free to pray—at any time and in any place, but remember you are personally communicating with your God and Savior! Lay before Him your goals for the day and ask for His blessing as you drive to work. Lay before Him the trials and troubles you endured and seek His help with resolving them on the way home from work. Pray at your table before and after meals. Pray on your knees in the bedroom before you fall to sleep at night or lying in bed when you wake up. God, who loves you personally, wants to hear from your personally, and this is His promise: “In everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
Secondly, Jesus teaches us that our prayers are to be meaningful! He says, “When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” Note the two thoughts Jesus is expressing—the first, an admonition, the second, an encouragement.
Jesus first admonishes us not to be superstitious about prayer. Certain religions and even certain segments of Christianity approach prayer superstitiously. They think that repeating certain phrases or entire prayers over and over again will impress God and win His favor. Some religions teach that such repetitious prayer purifies the soul and so prepares the practitioner for salvation. This is nonsense! Prayer does not and cannot win God’s favor or save men’s souls. Jesus Christ has won God’s favor for us through His meritorious life and His substitutionary death. The apostle Paul tells us, “When the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us!” (3:4-5a) Jesus wants us to know that God is much more interested in the contents of our prayers than their length or the number of times we pray them.
Is it wrong, then, to pray the same prayer more than one time? Of course not! We pray the Lord’s Prayer frequently, just as Jesus taught it. Jesus Himself urges us to be persistent in our prayers (cf. Lk. 18:1,7). Well considered and meaningful prayers are always welcomed by our Lord and Savior. Such prayers glorify God for they demonstrate that we trust in Him and depend upon His power and grace. Mindless repetition, however, is meaningless to God and is displeasing in His sight!
Jesus secondly offers us this encouragement—our Father in heaven knows what we need even before we ask Him. What does that mean? It means that God, who is omniscient, knows everything. He knows everything that has ever happened, is happening, or ever will happen. Consequently, He knows what we will be thinking and about the things for which we will be praying—even before we do! What is the point of praying then? Again, we do not pray for God’s sake, as we perhaps jot down lists of Christmas gift ideas for the sake of our friends and family. No, we pray so that we might be more aware of our needs and the potential God has to meet those needs. Meaningful prayers recognize that our God is great and good!
Thirdly, Jesus teaches us that our prayers are to be focused! Jesus says, “In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” We could spend many months of Sundays addressing the Lord’s Prayer, but this morning we will do so in just a number of minutes.
When we pray, let us remember God, let us remember ourselves, and let us remember others. Let us remember who God is—our heavenly Father! What a striking privilege it is for sinful mortals to be invited and instructed by Jesus to address the Creator of our universe as “Father!” One might think at least “Sir” would be more appropriate. But God has not chosen to have us view Him in our personal prayer relationship with Him as our Commanding Officer, our Master, or our Judge—even though He is all three of those. Rather, He has chosen to have us address Him as “Father,” as earthly children address their earthly fathers.
Given that privilege and being that loved, let us remember then to pray for those things in accordance with His good will and pleasure. Let us focus our prayers upon the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of His kingdom, and the fulfillment of His good and gracious will. Now this may seem obvious, but how often must we not confess that we fail to remember God in our prayers? Do we pray that God’s name will be “hallowed” in our lives as well as those of others by eager attention to God’s word and godly living? Next Sunday is our Fall Mission Festival. Do we pray for the expansion of God’s kingdom in our midst and elsewhere on a regular basis? Do we eagerly pray that God’s will is accomplish within our own lives, the lives of those around us, within our country, and throughout this world? Let us focus upon our God in our prayer-life, and I will guarantee you that amazing things will happen in our lives and those of others.
When we pray, let us remember ourselves. Let us remember to pray for “our daily bread”—those things we and others need to live within this world. We have been reminded in recent days and weeks about how feeble we really are when confronted by the forces of nature. Let us recognize our dependence upon God and then remember to thank Him for His daily blessings. Let us remember to pray for our forgiveness—not that our sins have not been forgiven already in Christ…they have—but that we might be led to genuine repentance for our sins and faith in Jesus who then bestows the blessings of that forgiveness upon us in our lives. Praying for forgiveness holds before our eyes our sinfulness and God’s grace and mercy—the former acknowledging past facts and the latter rejoicing in the promise of the future.
When we pray, let us remember others. Note that Jesus leads us to do this naturally in His prayer by teaching us to use the plural: “Our Father…give us this day our daily bread!” Jesus certainly wants us to remember to pray that God’s name, His kingdom, and His will all be done within the lives and for the benefit of others. He also wants us to pray for their physical and spiritual welfare. However, as we pray Jesus teaches us not only to be aware of other people, but also other beings—even those beings who wish us harm such as Satan. Jesus teaches us to bear in mind that we live in an evil world and that we cannot but be pressured by that world in our daily lives. Therefore, let us pray that we do not fall “into temptation” and should it occur that we overcome it with God’s help. Let us pray that Jesus would protect us from Satan and his minions, for they do, as the apostle Peter warns, “walk about seeking whom (they) may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). In all cases, whether we think of God, ourselves, or others, Jesus teaches us that our prayers are to be focused on specific goals and specific needs! God has promised to answer such prayers!
Finally, Jesus teaches us that our prayers are to proceed from penitent hearts! Jesus concludes His instruction on prayer within His Sermon on the Mount touching on a subject that is very difficult for many of us, but certainly vital for all of us. He says, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Jesus wants us to know that our communication and relationship with God is affected by our communication and relationship with our fellowmen. He makes this abundantly clear elsewhere in Scripture. The apostle John reminds us, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.” (1 Jn. 4:20-21) The apostle Peter ties the relationship of a husband to his wife with the husband’s prayer life when he says, “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7).
Let us realize that to withhold our forgiveness from someone is not an option for us. We are to forgive, even as we have been forgiven—fully and freely. The apostle Paul writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). Jesus Himself teaches us this in His Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (cf. Mt. 18:21-35). To refuse to forgive others—to keep on holding a grudge against someone—can and does deprive us of God’s own comfort and forgiveness! It does so because unforgiving hearts are prideful hearts, which close our eyes to our own need of grace and prevent us from submitting to and following the will of our Savior.
Let us, therefore, learn from Jesus! May we IMPROVE OUR PRAYER-LIFE with prayers that arepersonal, meaningful, focused, and which proceed from penitent hearts! Amen.
Soli Dei Gloria!
—Pastor Paul D. Nolting