Private and Pointed Prayer

Dr. Brian Allison

The Holy Spirit teaches believers how to pray. Prayer is not so much a human science as it is a holy art. Those who have been born again of the Spirit are taught by the Spirit to pray, and how to pray. Those who have been born again of the Spirit have received the Spirit of adoption whereby they cry, "Abba, Father." One of the first indications and evidences of whether one has been born again of the Spirit is whether he or she prays. Further, the Spirit teaches believers how to pray through the instruction provided by the Word of God. Our Lord taught His disciples how to pray. Matthew 6:5ff. reads, "And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him."

Praying for attention

Our Lord teaches us about prayer and how to pray. In Matthew 6, the teaching is on personal prayer, rather than on public prayer, though the latter is also important (cf. Acts 1). Jesus' instruction on personal prayer is very practical. First, He says, "And when you pray..." It is assumed that as believers, we are praying. When things get busy and hectic, what is usually the first item that falls away from our schedules? Prayer – when really this should be the last item that falls away. We stand in the need of prayer. Martin Luther said that he had to pray three or four hours a day because he had so much to do.

When we do pray, we are to avoid a certain approach – "And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites" (v. 5a). The hypocrite is someone who is insincere, not honest, who says one thing and does another. He or she is a pretender. It is possible for Christians to be hypocrites. Hypocrisy is a big problem in the Church, isn't it? Many professing Christians are hypocritical, and they don't even know it. Hypocrisy tends to self-deception. Many believers talk one way, and yet live quite another way. They may understand what the Bible teaches, but they have great difficulty applying the Bible's truths to their lives. Jesus gives us a warning, "Don't be as the hypocrites." No doubt, the primary reference here is to the scribes and Pharisees (see Matthew 23).

Jesus proceeds to reveal the particular hypocrisy that we are to avoid with respect to prayer. He says, "And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men" (v. 5). Hypocrites are people who want the spotlight. They are self-centred, self-focused, self-preoccupied. They are concerned about image and reputation. They want the attention. They want to present a nice, perfect picture of themselves, but such an image is no reflection of reality.

Why do hypocrites seek attention? Why do they want the spotlight? Because they desire the praise and recognition of people. They thrive on applause and accolades. They long to hear, "Isn't he a pious man. Listen to him pray!" or "Isn't she a godly woman. Listen to her pray!" And what motivates hypocrites to seek such adulation? Pride. They are driven by inflated egos – an exaggerated self-view. Jesus teaches us that when we pray we are not to be concerned about what other people think, and how they will evaluate us, whether they will consider us as spiritual people who can pray eloquently, using all the right lingo and phraseology. We are not to be concerned about making an impression on people.

My Christian brothers and sisters, you ought not to be concerned about what other people think about your prayers, and whether you come across as impressive. The real issue is: what does God think; and He is not so much concerned about your pretty words as He is about your poor heart. It is possible for believers to have the wrong focus with respect to prayer. If you are concerned about what people think about your praying, if you are concerned about the impression you make, then you are a people pleaser, not a God-pleaser; and thus God does not want to hear you. And we certainly cannot impress God with our staged prayers. He simply wants us to be open and honest, and to come to Him just as we are.

Jesus says, "Truly I say to you, they [hypocrites] have their reward in full" (v. 5c). What is He saying? What does the hypocrite seek? Praise and recognition. Jesus says that this is all they will receive, namely, what they sought – praise and recognition, and no more. Such rewards last only for a moment. If, when you pray, you are only concerned about the impression you make on others, and whether you are able, through your ability and creativity, to get recognition and praise, Jesus says, "That is all you are getting; you get nothing else." In other words, your prayers will not be answered. You will receive no blessing, you will receive no grace, you will receive no mercy; you will receive nothing from God.

God does not answer the prayers of the proud, those who are simply concerned about image and appearance, those who are more concerned about performing on a stage, than about pursuing the path to God; more concerned about what people hear, rather than what God hears. Maybe this is one reason why our prayers are not answered – we are too concerned about what people think, and their evaluation of us.

Praying in private

So, Jesus, tells us what not to do when it comes to the place and the posture of prayer; and then our Lord proceeds to tell us what to do. Positively speaking, He says, "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you" (v. 6). Jesus instructs us to pray in a secluded place, a place where we will not be disturbed, a place where we will not be interrupted. In the inner room, the Most Holy place, there should be no pretense, but rather ruthless honesty and sincerity. We are to pray in a context in which we can pour out our hearts to our Father. Prayer should be a true revealing of the heart, spiritual nakedness, and not calculated pretense.

It is in the inner room that one really sees how he is spiritually. In the inner room, it is just God and the believer; and we know that we cannot pull the wool over His eyes. Jesus is calling us to privacy, the inner sanctum, because He calls us to honesty and sincerity. Now, there are some who say, "I am always praying. When I am at work, I am praying; when I am in my car, I am praying; when I am working in the house, I am praying. I am always praying." But Jesus says, "Go into the inner room, and shut the door, and then pray." Why? God wants our best. He wants our undivided attention. He wants to be the sole focus of all our spiritual energies because He deserves nothing less. When we pray to Him while driving or when we pray to Him while working, we are distracted; we are not completely focused on God. We are not giving Him our best. It is self-justification and a cop-out to say, "Well, I am always praying; I can pray anywhere" (though this kind of praying is also required of us). No, He is worthy of our complete and undivided concentration. It is an insult to our heavenly Father to simply offer Him our distracted prayers. Such praying reflects a low view of God. To be sure, that which is of greatest importance to us, that which we hold to be of highest value, demands our full attention, respect, and consideration. What is your value of God? Was He worth your best this past week? Did you actually set aside time for Him, and Him alone, just as you set aside time to be with your friends or to wash your body?

Another reason why we are to enter the inner room to pray is that we are to verbalize our prayers. Why the inner room? Why all alone? Because we are to speak to, and not simply think about, our heavenly Father. There are some who say, "I pray mentally." That is also right. We ought to be mentally praying, but God also desires to hear our voices. Again, mental praying can be a cop-out and self-justification. We may say, "Well, I am always thinking about God, and that is my prayer life." If you are saying that, then you are probably a very spiritually shallow person. Did God hear you this past week?

We are to pray to our heavenly Father – "pray to your Father who is in secret" (v. 6b). Now, it is true that we may pray to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, for they are God; but God the Father is the primary object of our prayers. Why the emphasis on the Father? Because we have become His spiritual offspring. We are to come to Him as His children, and cry, "Abba, Father;" and we are to come to Him in the secret place – "pray to your Father who is in secret" (v. 6b). This is a profound truth and mystery of the Kingdom. He is eternal, infinite Spirit, and He manifests Himself in ways beyond our reasoning and comprehension. God is to be found in the secret place. God reveals His presence in the secret place only because He is eternal, infinite Spirit. The divine dimension intersects with our three dimensional world in the secret place. We read in the Scriptures, for instance, "Yet Thou art holy, O Thou who art enthroned (dost inhabit) the praises of Israel" (Ps. 22:3). This is not simply figurative language; it is a mystery of the Kingdom concerning He Who is eternal, infinite Spirit. In a very real sense, God in His person actually indwells, rests upon, the praises of Israel; and that is why we are to praise Him. Equally mysterious is this principle of the secret place. God graciously reveals Himself in the secret place. That is the wonder of prayer.

The reward of private prayer

God rewards those who pray in private. Here is a promise and guarantee – "And your Father who sees in secret will repay you" (v. 6c). Notice that it does not say, "Your Father who hears in secret;" but rather, "your Father who sees in secret." What does God see? Hopefully, He sees His child, in his faith, laying hold on Him. He wants to see the outpouring of the heart of His child who is yearning for Him. God looks at the heart; He searches the heart. God is more concerned about the heart than mere words (though words are important – the expressions of the heart). He does not want to see any pretense, any insincerity, any hypocrisy. It is a heart issue; and how we pray ought to be a true reflection of who we are and what is inside. Again, although God takes note of our words, He is more concerned about our hearts; and when He sees a heart that is pleasing to Him, He is pleased to repay us.

Does 'repay' seem a rather strange term to you? 'To repay' means to give what is owed, to give what is due. God repays us for praying to Him in secret. As amazing as it may sound, God has committed Himself to bless humility and obedience. God has morally obligated Himself, according to the Word that has come out of His mouth, to bless and to hear His humble, obedient children. When God sees a humble, obedient believer, wrestling to lay hold on Him, in the integrity of his or her spirit, He says, "It is good;" and He repays. It is like a father who instructs his children to behave in a certain way, and they consequently respond in obedience; and, out of the good pleasure of his love, and for recognition's sake, the father decides to give them a treat. So, God rewards us for obedience. He gives us what He has committed Himself to; and God cannot lie, He cannot deny Himself, and He cannot change. He is duty-bound to repay when He sees an honest and holy heart.

Praying nonsense

Jesus also teaches His disciples the manner in which they are to pray. He says negatively, "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words" (v. 7). We are to pray with our reason fully engaged. We are not to pray in a senseless, unthinking manner. That is why it is important not to tag on a token prayer at the end of a busy day. God wants our best sacrifices. Why? Because He is God. Do you give God a five minute prayer just before you nod off to sleep (and some actually fall asleep while praying)? We are to pray purposefully, having our minds alert. Simply put, we are to watch while praying. We must be spiritually vigilant, always on guard, because prayer is the front lines of spiritual warfare. In prayer, the fiery darts will come – possibly uncertainties and questions – and the soul is buffeted.

When we pray, we are not to use vain repetition, heaping up empty phrases. An excellent example of vain repetition is the account that we find in Acts 19 in which the pagan Ephesians were stirred into a frenzy; and for two hours, they chanted, "Great is Diana (Artemis) of the Ephesians!" (vv. 23-41). Jesus says that we should not use unthinking repetition in making our requests to God. Now, this does not mean that it is unacceptable to repeat ourselves in prayer. Jesus repeated Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. Paul records in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 that he repeated himself in prayer – he prayed three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed. The point is that we are not to pray "as the Gentiles do." For instance, in 1 Kings 18, the prophets of Baal cried out and prayed to their god to send down fire to consume the sacrifice. We read, "Then they took the ox which was given them and they prepared it and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, "O Baal, answer us." But there was no voice and no one answered. And they leaped about the altar which they made...So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. And it came about when midday was past that they raved until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice; but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention" (vv. 26,28,29).

Jesus tells us why people pray in a vain, repetitious way, "For they suppose that they will be heard for their many words" (v. 7c). They believe that the longer they pray, and even the louder they pray, that God will certainly hear. How deceived we can be in thinking that the length of prayer is proportional to the amount of blessing God will give us. God is not interested in form and mere externals, rather He is interested in the heart and its motives. You can pray more deeply in 10 seconds in some cases than you can in one hour. In saying this, I am not speaking against long prayers. Jesus, at different times, prayed all night. Sometimes pressing situations demand protracted prayers. Often much determined prayer precedes receiving much divine power. There is a place for long prayers; but the question is: what is going on in the heart? What is the motivation? The heathen believe that their long repetitive, meaningless prayers will be heard. Is that your thinking? Do you say, "I will just pray and pray the same thing over and over, and then God will hear me." There is no guarantee that He will; and most likely, He won't.

Praying pointedly

Praying in a vain, repetitive way is really an insult to God. Why? Because that kind of praying is an attempt to twist God's arm to respond to our need. Such praying reveals a defective understanding of God. We must remember that He is our heavenly Father. Thus, we read, "Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him" (v. 8). Our many words will not necessarily bend the ear of God. God does not need to be persuaded or informed by us. Our heavenly Father already knows our need, and we are simply to pray plainly and pointedly. God not only knows the need, He also is interested in it. He cares about us because He is our heavenly Father. He is not some ogre who needs to be won over. Let us not have a low view of God. Because God knows in advance what we need, we should simply ask in a concise and direct manner.

But why must we pray, if God already knows our need? God likes to hear His children; and when we pray to Him, we show our dependency on Him. James 4:2c reads, "You do not have because you do not ask." Coming to God in prayer is a faith response, trusting that He will provide. God delights in the faith responses of the heart; and as a result, He answers – not because we have convinced Him and won Him over, but because He blesses the expression of our love and the demonstration of our faith, which simply accepts His Word, because it is His Word, which thus honours Him. When we honour His name, God honours us in return. That is a principle of the Kingdom: when we acknowledge Him, He will acknowledge us.

What is your need? Name it in your heart right now. Some may say, "I have a need for courage;" or, "I have a need for peace;" or, "I have a need for wisdom;" or, "I have a need for companionship;" or, "I have a need for knowledge;" or, "I have a need for spiritual fulness;" or, "I have a need for self-control." What is your need? Let your heavenly Father know simply and pointedly your need. If, however, you say in your heart, "I have this need, but I am not convinced God will meet it; and to tell you the truth, I have my doubts that He will;" and so you hesitate in identifying and making the need known, then you do not yet know God as your heavenly Father in the way that you should. You may know the language; but in faith you have not yet seen Him, encountered Him, and experienced Him as your heavenly Father; and that is what He wants to be to you right now. If you have a need, make it known to Him; and He will repay you for your humility and obedience in the secret place.

Thus, we can pray in confidence. We pray in confidence because God already knows the need even before we ask Him, even before we recognize it. And He is willing to meet the need when we ask Him in the secret place. Isn't that exciting? Have you come to experience the wonder and beauty of prayer? It has a life all its own. I know of no sweeter place than the place of prayer. Those who are taught by the Spirit know exactly what I mean. Is God teaching you to pray? Do you say, "Lord, teach me to pray in the school of prayer"?