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"Go and teach all nations to observe whatsoever things I have taught you..." Matthew 28:19-20
In chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel Jesus begins by telling us about the three “means of grace” - that is, ways in which we can give God a right to work in our lives. This is not “works”; neither is it a guaranteed formula which will always work. Prayer, fasting and giving are means of grace. We may pray and fast and give diligently, and God may give us no grace! Grace is a free gift, and it is always God’s prerogative. But if we don’t pray, fast or give, we are denying God the right to work in our lives. The more we habitually practice these things, the more God will be able to work in us and through us. Because they are so effective, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are strongly resisted by the devil. This fact in itself should spur us on to do them more!
Public And Private Prayer
Jesus begins to speak about prayer by contrasting public prayer for the praise of men (verse 5) with private prayer in secret to God (verse 6). We may note several things about this. Firstly, there is of course nothing wrong with public prayer in itself. But in all public prayer, we are aware that people are listening. We are, consciously or subconsciously, praying for the ears of other people as well as God. If you don’t think this is so, try listening to your own public prayers, the ones you pray at the prayer meeting or bible study, and see how they compare with the prayers you pray alone in your private room. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting our prayers to suit the circumstances. In fact it would be quite wrong to pray about some intimate or personal things in public, or to confess certain personal weaknesses and sins. It wouldn’t be edifying to others, and it might be harmful to them.
Secondly, public prayer cannot avoid the reaction of men. They will praise or criticize the prayer. And that judgment of men, Jesus says, is our reward for public prayer. We cannot obtain reward from God as well as reward from men. This is a fixed spiritual principle. But private, secret prayer to God has a reward from God, because it has no reward from men.
Thirdly, you cannot build a relationship with God through public prayer. That only comes through private prayer. This is obvious when we think about it; no close relationship can ever be built in public. All close relationships are built in private, in intimacy, in secret from the outside world, on personal one-to-one communication.
A Practical Illustration
Jesus gives a practical illustration of the contrast in Luke 18:9-14, the story of the Pharisee and the publican praying in the temple. The Pharisee, Jesus said, “stood and prayed thus with himself ...” - that is, he wasn’t even praying to God, he was praying for his own ego! This is a disturbing development on Jesus’ words in Matthew. The Pharisee might have prayed a similar prayer in private. We don’t need to be in public to pray a prayer for the praise of men. We can get to the stage, if we’re not careful, where we’re praying for our own praise. That’s dangerous. Everything the Pharisee said was true. He was not unjust, he did fast, he was not like the publican. But he was listening to his own prayer and feeling good about it. But the publican’s confession and plea for mercy came from his heart, and even though it was in public (in the temple), it had all the qualities of private prayer. It was an intimate prayer for the ears of God alone. So both the Pharisee and the publican might have prayed the same prayers in private. In the end, the deciding factor is not the outward circumstances but the inward attitude.
I have six points to note about prayer.
1. What prayer is. A dictionary definition is “entreaty, petition, intercession, request, desire”. To pray is just an old English word meaning to ask. In Shakespeare’s plays, which date from around the same time as the King James version of the bible, “I pray you” or “I prithee”, just means “I ask you”, or as we would translate today, “please”. It has become a “spiritual” word to distinguish talking to God from talking to men. But it isn’t, it’s a normal ordinary word for a request.
So if prayer is a request, it excludes praise. It also excludes thanksgiving. Both of these are good, but neither of them are prayer. Paul says we should offer our prayers with thanksgiving. Prayer also excludes demands or claiming rights. A request is not a demand. It is a plea for a favor.
2. Why prayer is so difficult. Logic should tell us that it is quite unreasonable that prayer is so hard, so resisted. Why is it so difficult to pray in secret to God? Why are there always so many obstacles and distractions? It’s not hard to talk to your best friend in private; it’s a delight. It’s not hard to read a magazine in private. Why is it so hard to talk to God?
It is resisted so much because, as we have already noted, the devil fears it so much. I’m not talking here of what some Christians call “satanic resistance”, “attack” or “opposition”, the exciting “warfare” talk that goes around. I’m talking about a much more mundane sort of resistance, which I think is just as satanic: the apathy and lack of motivation, the distractions and weariness that set in when we try to apply ourselves to prayer. There are no “feelings” of resistance, and it doesn’t seem like warfare. It doesn’t seem like anything at all, and we give up out of boredom rather than out of the “exhaustion of the battle”. But this boredom is the real battle that we have to overcome. This is the really satanic thing. This is why Jesus urged that “men ought always to pray and not to faint” (Luke 18:1) and Paul exhorted to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
3. Our lack of prayer exposes us. The fact that we have no problems in talking to our friends for an hour, yet we find it so hard to talk with God for an hour, exposes the fact that our relationship with God is pretty poor! That in itself should exhort us to redouble our efforts in prayer.
4. Our relationship with God is our Christianity. Prayer is the measure of that relationship. Our prayer life is directly proportional to our relationship with God. For Paul, Christianity was summed up in his phrase “That I may know him” (Philippians 3:10). This intimate knowledge of God can only come through personal private prayer. In fact, we may confidently say that those who do not pray in private do not really know God. Great men of God have always been great men of prayer, in the bible and throughout church history.
5. Prayer is not taught. There is very little teaching on prayer. But really, how can you teach prayer? You can’t teach someone how to have a relationship, or how to fall in love. You can copy other people’s public prayers, and use those in your private prayers. But this is the road to praying for your own ears, what I call “professional prayers”. In private prayer we must do what we cannot do in public prayer, be intimate and honest, reveal all our weaknesses and faults.
Our Christianity is our relationship with God, not our relationship with the church or with other Christians; so that relationship must be developed alone with God. That can’t be taught. It’s got to be learned and experienced between you and God. Everyone’s relationship is different.
6. Prayer is two-way communication. Talking to the wall is not prayer. It’s no use making a request if the person you are making the request to is not listening, or if you have not got their attention. People assume that God is always listening. But I can prove that this is not the case.
In Psalm 17:6 David asks God to “incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech”. Why would he do that? Surely, only if there was a possibility that God would not hear him. What would stop God hearing us? Psalm 66:18 says “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me”. And in the New Testament Peter advises husbands to honour their wives “as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). The Lord’s Prayer tells us that if we do not forgive others, our own prayers for forgiveness will not be heard. And so on; there are really many instances in which God will not “incline his ear”. We need to ensure that our hearts are right. When we speak to God we are coming into the temple of God, into the holy place before the throne of grace, within the veil; we are ascending God’s “holy hill”. “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart ...” (Psalm 24:3,4). This does not mean that we cannot come as we are, confessing sins and weaknesses. It means that we must come with honest hearts, conscious of our weaknesses, covering up nothing.
When our hearts are right with God, we may expect God to hear us; but we should then also expect God to speak to us. People who know God hear God.
There is no greater, quicker, surer way to get to know God than to spend time with him. If you want to get to know me, the quickest and best way is to come and live with me. It’s the time spent alone with God, speaking to him and listening to him, developing that relationship, that counts. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that we have a good relationship with God if we work hard for him - and we should work hard for him - but this is not a substitute for prayer. God is interested in our worth, not our work; in who we are, rather than what we do. Doing the will of God is important; but how will we know what he wants us, personally, to do, unless we hear from him, and how will we hear personally from him except through regular and frequent private prayer?
These are some of the principles behind prayer. The principles are no good without the practice. May God help us all to strive diligently in prayer, that like Paul we “may know him”.
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