Learning How to Pray

April 26, 2009 | Brian Bill

Is there just one way to pray?  What kind of prayer are you most comfortable with?  During hard times, people are hurting in many ways.  In the midst of the mess our country is in, more and more people are turning to prayer.  According to a November poll by Faithbook, more than a quarter of respondents said they have prayed more and 42% said that they have experienced a positive effect from praying.

Our focus this morning is on learning how to pray, using the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples as a guideline.  People have had all sorts of experiences with the Lord’s Prayer.  Here are some that I came across.

  • When my twin daughters were young, I taught them to say this prayer before going to bed. As I listened outside their door, I could hear them say, “Give us this steak and daily bread, and forgive us our mattresses.”
  • When I was a child, I learned this prayer as “Our Father, who are in Heaven, Howard be thy name.” I always thought that was God’s real name.
  • When I was younger, I believed the line was “Lead a snot into temptation.” I thought I was praying for my little sister to get into trouble.
  • My son, who is in nursery school, said, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, how didja know my name?”
  • I remember thinking this prayer was “Give us this day our jelly bread.”
  • One mother was teaching her three-year-old this prayer at bedtime and after several nights her daughter was ready to go solo.  She was doing a great job, getting every word right until she got to the end: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us some email.”

Most of us are familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, and some of us have attended churches where it was recited every Sunday.  I grew up saying this prayer so much that it just became rote for me.  I was even instructed to repeat this prayer as penance way too many times to count.  [Demonstrate by quickly quoting prayer].  Since I often associated this prayer with punishment when I was younger, I know I missed the mystery and magnitude of these profound words for many years.  

In our passage for today, we will look at how not to pray and then at how to pray.  This prayer has rightly been called a “dangerous prayer” because God just may answer it.  It is poetic and beautiful and yet profound and brief.  Jesus had a great deal to say about prayer, mentioning the topic 42 times in his teaching.  Amazingly, the gospels show him praying 28 times!  

How Not to Pray

As we learned last week, the Sermon on the Mount is sharp and to live it out can be painful, but profitable.  One person left on Sunday and told me that I had ruined her afternoon because she now had to go home and make phone calls to people she was in conflict with.  Another person told me on Thursday that she was mad at me and that she hated the sermon.  She told me that she almost got up and left because she knew she had to make something right with someone.  She then smiled and told me that God helped her to be a peacemaker this week.

It’s important that we get the blade of the Bible on correctly and that the instructions are followed completely.  Here’s an example of some bad directions.  A husband had wronged his wife and so he decided to order some flowers.  He told the florist that the card should read, “I’m sorry, (comma) I love you.”  Unfortunately, his instructions were not followed because when the flowers arrived, the card read, “I’m sorry I love you.”  As we continue in our study of this sermon, we need to implement the instructions exactly.

In verses 5-8 we see how easy it is to slip into the mechanics and miss the majesty of prayer.  Before we look at the content, let’s notice the context.  Here are two ways to not pray.

1. Don’t pray for recognition. 

Let’s read verse 5: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” Notice that Jesus assumes that we will pray: “and when you pray.”  The religious people were all about praying to be recognized.  A hypocrite is literally “one who wears a mask,” assuming a character which does not belong to him.   Notice that they “loved” to receive religious recognition.  It’s easy to equate man’s applause with God’s approval but those who pray to impress others will have no further hope of reward from God.

In verse 6, we’re told to find a private place to pray: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  This Greek word for “room” was a storeroom where treasures were kept.  How appropriate since we have precious treasures available to us when we pray!  This word can also refer to a den or a closet or a private chamber.  Praying in a private place can help us concentrate.  It can help us connect.  And we can gain confidence in our relationship with Christ.  Are you taking time in your day to pray?  Do you have a special spot where you can intercede without interruption?

2. Don’t pray with meaningless repetition. 

We must also resist the urge to blabber and babble when we pray.  Notice verses 7-8: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think 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.” Prayer is not an effort to overcome God’s unwillingness to respond by wearying Him with our words.  That’s exactly how the pagans prayed in 1 Kings 18:26 when Baal wasn’t answering them: “Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon.  ‘O Baal, answer us!’ they shouted.  But there was no response; no one answered…” This also happened in Acts 19:34 where we read that the pagans shouted in unison for two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”  

One pastor summarized this section by saying that in our prayers we shouldn’t be hazy, crazy or lazy.  I like what D.L. Moody once said: “Some men’s prayers need to be cut short at both ends and set on fire in the middle.”  It’s easy to pray without paying attention.  John Bunyan commented: “When thou prayest, rather let thy heart be without words than thy words without heart.”

 Prayer Pointers

It’s ironic that in the context which forbids rote repetition in prayer, in verses 9-13, we come to what is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” a prayer that has been repeated possibly more than any other.  Actually, it’s probably better to call it “The Disciples’ Prayer” or “The Model Prayer” because in Luke 11:1, these words come as an answer to the disciple who said: “Lord, teach us to pray.”  This could be translated as “pray along these lines.”  The real Lord’s Prayer is actually found in John 17 where we read of Jesus crying out to His Father as He prays for unity for his followers.  

The model for prayer that Jesus gave to His followers can be divided into two sets of three elements each.  The first three (hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done) deal with God’s glory.  The second three (give us our daily bread, forgive us our debts, lead us not into temptation) deal with our good.  Prayer is to begin with the character of God.  And, the reason we pray and the reason God answers is to put Himself and His glory on display.  Psalm 115:1: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.”  Incidentally, about half of the words in this prayer are devoted to who God is; the other half is focused on our needs.  That’s a good ratio to keep in mind as we pray for God’s glory and our good.

Incidentally, I don’t know of anywhere in the Gospels where the disciples were characterized as men of prayer.  They often watched Jesus pray but they didn’t enter into intercession themselves.  In fact, in the hour of Jesus’ greatest need they dropped their eyelids instead of dropping to their knees.  We’re the same way, aren’t we?  We know prayer is important, we know Jesus modeled it, but most of us fall far short.  

If we want to pray like Jesus prayed, let’s learn along with his disciples as we read the first part of Matthew 6:9: “This, then, is how you should pray.  ‘Our Father in heaven…’”  If we get these first four words right, then we get everything right.  We’re given a couple guidelines for prayer before the praying begins.

  • Pray in context of community.  Jesus uses the plural pronoun here to indicate that prayer is to have a corporate element to it: “you should pray…”  Most of us come to the Lord with a lot of “I, me, and my” in our prayers.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he used no singular personal pronouns.  Nowhere do we find the word me.  Listen: Our Father…give usour daily bread… forgive us our debts…we also have forgiven…lead us not into temptation…but deliver us…”
  • Pray with relational reverence.  Prayers should be directed to “Our Father in heaven.”  Jesus addressed His prayers to His Father, using the phrase more than 70 different times.  This alone was unique because the religious people of the day didn’t use this term.  Rather, they used exalted titles like, “King of the Universe” or “Sovereign Lord.”  The only prayer Jesus ever prayed without the word Father was when He was on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  When we become Christians, Romans 8:15 says that we receive the Holy Spirit who makes us children of God, “and by Him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”  The new birth is required in order to have this kind of relationship.  This word “Abba” means “daddy,” and communicates the intimacy and nearness of God.  

Our ‘daddy’ God is attentive; unlike I am many times with our daughters.  Just this week, Lydia walked through the kitchen holding up a pair of jeans as she asked me what I thought she should wear to the school sports banquet.  She had on pajama pants and I told her that I liked both options.  She just rolled her eyes because it was obvious I wasn’t paying attention…once again.  Our ‘daddy’ God is never distracted.

Our Father is in heaven.  This is where prayer must begin.  Larry Crabb writes: “Efforts to worship God without first getting to know Him tend to reduce worship to mere appreciation when God cooperates with our agenda.”  Don Carson points out that this is a good corrective for evangelicals who often show way too much irreverence, shallow theology and experience-oriented worship: “When believers pray ‘Our Father in heaven,’ they cannot but be hushed and humbled.”

3 Requests for God’s Glory

After acknowledging God as our Father, Jesus gives us three God-centered requests that have to do with His glory.

Adoration: “Hallowed by your name.”

While we have a relationship with Him we must also revere Him

To hallow means “to make holy.”  He is intimate like a Father and He is infinite in holiness.  God’s nature is like a daddy but His name is holy.  Our open access to Him should not destroy our esteem for Him.  He is not the “big guy in the sky” or “our best buddy.”  He is the holy and awesome God of Israel, before whom we should tremble like Isaiah did in Isaiah 6.   While we have a relationship with Him we must also revere Him.  He is our friend but He is also a consuming fire as Hebrews 12:29 says.  He is other than us and yet He is ours.  He is personal and He is powerful.  He is mine and He is majestic.  Do you praise and prize God’s name?  Are you committed to spread the fame of His name?

Praying, “hallowed by your name” is a safeguard against self-seeking prayer.  Before we can move on to the other petitions in this prayer, we must ask God to make His name holy and we must avoid using His name irreverently.  For some of us, that means that we need to stop using His name as a cuss word.  For others it means that we need to avoid just saying God’s name tritely or using the Christian equivalent to a swear word.  Too many of us are shallow; to remedy this we must hallow His name. 

2. Affirmation: “Your kingdom come.”

The word “kingdom” in the Greek means “rule” or “reign.”  To pray, “Your kingdom come” is to pray that God may take up reigning residence in the hearts and lives of those who are in rebellion.  It is a prayer for salvation, for kingdom citizenship.  In Luke 17:21 Jesus says that the “kingdom of God is within you.”  Can you imagine what would happen if we were preoccupied with the coming of God’s kingdom?  Just think about what would take place in this community if we were determined to pray that God’s kingdom rule would make itself known in the lives of our neighbors and co-workers!  Can you imagine how our church would be different if each of us was concerned more about God’s kingdom than our own?  Martin Luther once said that if most Christians really understood what they were saying when they prayed for God’s kingdom to come, they’d shudder with fear.

3. Acceptance: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When we pray this part we are really saying, “Almighty Father God, take control of my life and do what you will for your glory.”  Prayer is not asking God to do my will.  It is bringing me into conformity with His ways.  How is God’s will done in heaven?  It’s done joyfully, instinctively, immediately, and constantly.  To pray this request is to say that we want it to be the same here.  Let’s pause and reflect on this.  If I pray this request, it’s also my pledge that by God’s grace, I will do His will!  I like what John Wesley said: “I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”

Let’s pray: “Our holy heavenly Father, we bow before your majestic presence, recognizing that as we come before you, our sins threaten to consume us.  You are holy, holy, holy and the whole earth is full of your glory.  We praise you and prize you because of your transcendent holy name.  We hallow your name because you are high and lifted up and we hallow your name by striving to live holy lives.  Help us to always treat you as holy.  We pray that your kingdom, not ours, would come through conversions, through our commitment to your kingship, and we look forward to the glorious day of your appearing as you consummate history and usher in your eternal kingdom.  Help us to be kingdom oriented in the way we live so that we will honor you with our lives, and fire us up to do your will always, for what we want is your glory.  Amen.”

3 Requests for our Good

Did you notice that we’re half-way through the prayer before Jesus allows us to ask for anything for ourselves?  The first half of this model prayer is God-ward – adoration, affirmation and acceptance.  The second half focuses on the believer.  We move from God’s glory to our good.  Once God is given His rightful place, then we have the proper perspective toward ourselves. 

  • Will it bring glory to Him?
  • Will it advance His kingdom?
  • Will it help people?
  • Will it help me grow spiritually?

Two young brothers were spending the night at their grandparents.  At bedtime, they knelt beside their beds to say their prayers.  The youngest one began praying at the top of his lungs: “For my birthday, I pray for a new bike, an iPod, and a new Playstation.”  His older brother leaned over and said, “Why are you shouting your prayers? God isn’t hard of hearing.” His little brother replied, “No, but Grandma is.”  Friends, you don’t have to yell out these three requests because God is not hard of hearing.  

1. Provision: “Give us each day our daily bread.”

This request has more to do with the totality of our physical life.  The word bread is really a broad term meaning all of our physical needs. Would you notice that we are to pray for our needs, and not our greed’s?  When we pray, “Give us each day our daily bread,” we are saying that we trust God as the source to supply all the physical needs of our lives, and we affirm that He will take care of everything we need.  Notice that this trust in God is for each day.  In the first century, bread had to be made on a daily basis.  They couldn’t just buy a couple loaves and put them in the freezer.  Like manna that comes once a day, God provides one day at a time.  I like Proverbs 30:8: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”  During these challenging economic times, ask God to give you your daily bread.  The point of the prayer is not for us to get what we want, but to receive what we need.

2. Pardon: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” 

Forgiveness of sin is the greatest need of the human heart.  Only God can grant us a pardon from punishment and guilt.  Sin is a debt that only God can free us from.  Notice that Jesus immediately gives us a caveat – we are to also release others from debt.  This verse teaches us that it is wrong to ask from God what we are not willing to give to other people.  This is the only prayer petition in the Disciple’s Prayer that is emphasized with additional challenging words in verses 14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

One author says it this way: “It isn’t that God forgives on an exchange basis.  Our forgiveness of others is not a condition of God’s forgiveness of us.  Rather it is a condition of our ability to receive the forgiveness of God…A wrong spirit toward another person may or may not hurt him, but it is certain to destroy my own soul.  Booker T. Washington understood it when he said, ‘I will not permit any man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.’”  Let me ask you a question.  Is there anyone who comes to mind right now who is in need of your forgiveness?  Have you been holding someone captive?  Is there someone in need of some grace?  

It’s the height of hypocrisy to expect God to forgive us if we are unwilling to forgive others

It’s the height of hypocrisy to expect God to forgive us if we are unwilling to forgive others.  And, when we fail to forgive someone, we set ourselves up as a higher judge than God himself.  Another way to say it is that our relationship with the Lord cannot be right until our relationship with others is made right.  I love how a four-year-old prayed this part of the prayer: “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”  We learned about that last week.  Is there someone you’ve been trashing?  Or, have you been trashed?  Go and be reconciled.

3. Protection: “And lead us not into temptation.” 

In the three requests for ourselves, one is for the present – give us our daily bread.  One looks to the past and the present – forgive us our sins.  This last one looks to the future.  Will God answer a prayer like this?  You bet He will.  1 Corinthians 10:13 gives us a wonderful promise: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” When you’re faced with an enticement, look for the way out and don’t put yourself in situations to sin.  Psalm 19:13 is a practical prayer: “Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.”  

Let’s be honest.  Some of us aren’t all that afraid of temptation.  But we need to be because we never know when it’s coming to get us.  Genesis 4:7: “…sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

Let’s pray using the parameters of the second half of this prayer: “Our holy father God, we desire to have you triumph as King in our lives and we lean on you to provide for our physical needs.  If it weren’t for your provision, we would have nothing.  What we do have is a gift from you.  And so we choose to trust you for our daily bread, every day so that we might grow in our relationship with you as we see you provide in ways we never thought possible.  Thank you that we live as forgiven sinners without any fear of condemnation.  Give us the courage and humility to make things right with others by owning our sins and by cutting others some slack so we can give them the same gift of grace that you’ve given to us.  And when we’re faced with the temptation to trample your holiness in our thoughts, words, and actions, lead us away and deliver us from the evil one.  We ask this for you glory and for our good.  Amen.”

Prayer Practices

Let me suggest some practical ways to put this prayer into practice.

1. Pray this prayer everyday. 

The prayer is not magic but when the heart is engaged, it is mighty, as long as we do so with reverence and with expectancy that God will answer it. 

2. Find a prayer partner. 

Is there someone you could ask this week to become your prayer partner? 

An unknown author put together a great summary of the Disciples’ Prayer.

  • I cannot say “our” if I live only for myself.
  • I cannot say, “Father” if I do not endeavor each day to act like His child.
  • I cannot say, “hallowed be your name” if I am playing around with sin.
  • I cannot say, “Your kingdom come” if I am not allowing God to reign in my life.
  • I cannot say, “ your will be done” if I want my way all the time.
  • I cannot say, “Give us this day our daily bread” if I am trusting in myself instead of in God’s provision.
  • I cannot say, “Forgive us our debts” if I am nursing a grudge or withholding forgiveness from someone else.
  • I cannot say, “lead us not into temptation” if I deliberately place myself in its path.

Let’s pray this prayer from Matthew 6 together slowly and with meaning and let’s pause after each clause.  We’ll conclude with the doxology that many manuscripts also include: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”  We pray this for His glory and for our good because praise, preaching and prayer always go together.  And what is for God’s glory is ultimately for our good as well.

“Our Father in heaven, 

hallowed be your name, 

your kingdom come,

 your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  

Give us today our daily bread.  

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?