Jesus Talks About Prayer

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 6:9-15
Matthew 7:7

One of the subjects Jesus talks a lot about in his Sermon on the Mount is prayer, in particular, how to pray.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. . . .

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Matthew 6:7-8 7:7-11, NRSV

Once as Jesus was praying in a certain place his disciples came up to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1). What an impression Jesus’ example must have made on his disciples! They were – most of them – from pious homes and had grown up in an atmosphere of prayer and devotion, but none of them had ever seen anyone pray like Jesus. He would rise a great while before day and go off to pray; he would retreat into the mountains alone and spend a whole night talking with his heavenly Father. The disciples must have thought “How does he do it?” So they asked him: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

LEARNING TO PRAY

We need to ask that same thing. One of our greatest needs is for instruction in prayer. Alexander Whyte, a brilliant Scottish preacher of the last century, said this:

There is nothing in which we need to take so many lessons as in prayer. There is nothing of which we are so utterly ignorant when we first begin . . . And there is nothing else that we are so bad at all our days.

Many people do not realize that you have to learn how to pray. Prayer takes instruction and a lot of hard work. Real prayer does not come “naturally.” It’s the hardest thing in the whole Christian life, which is why it’s also the most rare. It is much easier to give money than it is to pray – some people are naturally generous. It’s much easier to discipline oneself than it is to pray – some people are born with strong willpower. It’s much easier for me to talk about prayer than it is for me to pray – some people find it easy to teach. But nobody finds it easy to pray, at least at first; nobody is naturally good at it. Prayer is talking with the living God, and that is not an easy thing for any child of Adam and Eve to do, not since our first parents hid from him in the garden. We need to be taught how to pray, and we need to work hard at learning it.

LEARNING WHY

But before we learn how to pray, it’s important to take a few moments to think about why we pray. Why do we pray at all? Let’s start with why we don’t pray, at least, what is not the main purpose in coming to God in prayer. Christian prayer is not a psychological technique. It is not a process for “positive imaging” or auto-suggestion, or for managing one’s bio-feedback, or for self-healing through meditation. It has nothing to do with New Age channeling, or spiritism, or any other expressions of pagan religion, whether ancient or modern. For Christians, prayer is not a subdirectory on the self-help menu.

Nor do Christians pray primarily to get things from God to improve our lives or solve our problems. Supplication and intercession are elements of Christian prayer, though not the highest ones (praise is the highest form of prayer). We do ask for things in prayer for ourselves as well as others, and for both physical and spiritual needs, as Jesus teaches us to. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). But the most important reason we pray is not to ask. Prayer is not a lever with which we try to manipulate God into granting our desires and fulfilling all our requests – to push him here and pull him there, to get him to do this for us and give us that.

Christian prayer rises out of a relationship with God. As Christians we know that through faith we are united with Christ and thus we become God’s own children. Prayer is our primary means of communicating with our heavenly Father. That’s why Jesus himself prayed, and prayed so much, setting us the stunning example of his own prayer life. His whole being was dependant upon his Father, and even though he was the Son of God – because he was the Son of God – he developed his relationship with the Father through the exercise of prayer. Every Christian prays just because being a Christian means belonging to God’s family, and prayer is the way we spend time with our Father.

Do you need a better reason than this? Christians pray; it’s as simple as that. We may pray badly, we may pray infrequently, but we pray. The great Christian teacher of the last century, Bishop J.C. Ryle, put the matter succinctly: “God has no dumb children.”

LEARNING HOW

The question then becomes how to pray, and Jesus offers us some pointers here in his sermon, both in the explicit instructions he gives and in the model prayer he offers, the prayer known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Here are four principles of good praying:

  1. First, pray confidently. Jesus teaches us to address God as “Father,” telling us to use the very name he himself did. The actual word is “Abba,” one of those untranslated Aramaic words that made such an impression on Jesus’ disciples they wanted to retain the very sound of it as they wrote down the New Testament. “Abba” was an intimate family term, remarkable for the freedom of access it implies we have with God. We don’t gain access to God through prayer; we pray because we have access to him through Jesus. If by faith in Christ you are God’s child, you never have to be reluctant or hesitant to come to him about anything. He delights in your coming, for he is your loving Father. Jesus urges us to approach God in prayer with confidence by using one of his favorite arguments, the “how much more” argument: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
    And always remember, whatever you ask or say, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” “Love loves to be told what it already knows; it wants to be asked for what it longs to give” (P.T. Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer).
  2. Second, pray simply. “When you are praying,” says Jesus – and notice, he said “when,” not “if” – “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Prayer is not a matter of learning the right technique, or repeating the correct formulas. You don’t score more prayer points for reciting more words. The great biblical example in this regard is Elijah on Mount Carmel. He had a contest there with 450 prophets of Baal, the Canaanite god, to see which God was the real one. All day long, from morning till long past midday, the prophets of Baal called upon their god to answer them. When nothing happened they began to shout louder, and to jump about, and even to gash themselves with knives and lances, all in a vain attempt to open the deaf ears of a lifeless idol. Then it was Elijah’s turn. He did not shout, he did not scream. He didn’t have to pile up endless vain repetitions or hurt himself so God would pay attention. Elijah just stepped forward and prayed, simply and from the heart: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel . . . answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God” (1 Kings 18:37). And he did.
  3. Third, pray comprehensively. In his model prayer Jesus teaches us to pray not just for our own concerns but for God’s as well. In fact, we are to begin with his concerns: God’s Name, his kingdom, his will. One of the biggest mistakes we make in our petitions is to turn our whole prayer into an exercise in acquisition, and do nothing but ask for things for ourselves and families. Our first interest should be for God’s glory, that he would be known and honored by all people. In praying for God’s kingdom we show our concern for the needs of the whole church throughout the whole world. We should pray for God’s people everywhere, for renewal in the churches, for the triumph of the gospel throughout the world. We pray as well for God’s will to be done everywhere, beginning in our own lives and extending outward until justice, peace and righteousness have been established throughout the world. Then we turn to our own needs, both physical and spiritual.
    The pronoun Jesus uses is important. In his model prayer he teaches us not to say “I” or “me” but “us.” He tells us that we should ask God to feed, forgive and lead us. Whatever we ask for ourselves we really must be asking for others too.
  4. Fourth, pray earnestly. We can and should ask for things in prayer; we have strong encouragement to do so. And when we do we don’t have to be shy; we must ask with earnestness and conviction. Jesus says that we should “Ask, seek, knock”; his repetition is meant to intensify our efforts. Not of course that we must always use many words. But the words we do use, or “the sighs and groans too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26), must be in earnest. When we pray we should mean what we say, we must really care. It’s as Claudius the king says in Hamlet:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below –

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

When we pray to God simply and sincerely to meet our needs and the needs of others, we must believe that he will hear and answer us. When we ask God our Father for bread, he will never give us a stone – although he always reserves the right to give us bread whenever we, in our ignorance, ask him for stones.

If you are a follower of Jesus you must decide once and for all that prayer is important. Make it a priority. We always seem to find time for the things that are most important to us. Make a plan. Fix a definite time, and find a specific place to pray. Then get on with it. Prayer is an exercise. You need to develop spiritual muscles the same way you do your physical ones – bit by bit. Exercise of whatever kind is hard for most of us, but if your life is at stake, you’ll do it. When the doctor says it’s diet and exercise or die, you find time to walk each day. We need to realize that the same thing is true for the life of our souls; it’s pray or die!