Even though religion is slowly being dismantled, the acceptance of spirituality is at an all-time high. Prayer and faith, for example, are both rising in popularity and accepted by many, for numerous reasons. While people are not “religious,” they are highly “spiritual.” I simply celebrate the very notion that unbelievers are open to a “spiritual realm.”
Unfortunately, in this conversation of spiritual piety, the Church may be in threat of diluting our special fellowship with God. We may mean well, but I believe our piety has become more about the right “activity” and “vocabulary,” than about “sincerity” and “authenticity.”
It’s a struggle today, and it was a struggle in Jesus’ day. Jesus calls us to have a prayer life that is sincere and authentic so we can completely focus on God.
Jesus’ Message (Matthew 6:5-8)
In an effort to explain what authentic piety looks like, Jesus gave us three examples. The first, was giving money (Giving Money: The Quiet Generous Heart), and the second is prayer:
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.1
At first glance, it appears that “private prayer” is the only authentic form of prayer. It doesn’t take long, however, before we understand that Jesus is clearly trying to make a point – our prayer life should be sincere and authentic.
Prayer in the New Testament
Prayer for the devote Jew occurred three times every day (Daniel 6:10).2 Prayer was also encouraged in both private and public life in an effort to break down religious segregation and to live out private faith in public spaces.3 What’s interesting, however, is that prayer itself wasn’t unique to the Jews. The pagans thought if they spoke more words, mentioned more gods, and repeated themselves enough, they would have a better chance of their prayers being answered.4 Jesus clearly witnessed the Jews acting in their spirituality, but also adopting a hypocritical view of prayer.
When Jesus spoke of being a “hypocrite” in this context, he pointed to a “self-deceit” – when we fool ourselves to thinking our prayer life is directed towards God, when in reality, we are looking for the praise of those around us, and using “empty phrases.”5 Jews during this time, were praying so that others could see and hear their piety.
If we desire for others to view us as “spiritual,” we will receive their praise and forfeit God’s fellowship. As a result, our prayer becomes hypocritical because it doesn’t draw us into fellowship with God, rather ourselves. John Stott called it “a mean kind of self-service.”6 In the end, hypocritical prayer only hurts our spirituality and pushes us away from our relationship with God.
This also extends to the words we use when we pray. The pagans believed “that they [would] be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). In reality, there is no need to repeat ourselves with empty phrases, unnecessary repetition, or filling silence with religious quotes because God already knows what we need (6:8).
This might be a difficult one to swallow. I grew up in the Church and I learned all of the proper prayer lingo. Everything from phrases like “we pray a hedge of protection,” to bible verses, songs, and repeating “Oh, God…” between every thought. It has become our way of prayer, and in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with it. But there is a point to be made here. The ESV translated the Greek word battaloge as “heap up empty phrases,” but the rare word is understood to mean “babbling” or “speaking without thinking.”7
The question is, do we, as believers, use words and phrases just for the sake of using them or to show others our spirituality, or do we sincerely speak and authentically think about what we are praying? Our intentions may be good, but we may not be as sincere and as authentic as we may think. After all, these verses serve as a “warning” for us so that we aren’t naively practicing our righteousness (6:1).
I guess the best question to ask ourselves is this: when I pray, does God hear my words and knowledge, or does God hear the sincerity and authenticity of my heart?
We rightfully connect our prayer lives with our faith and spirituality and often take this topic personally. So before I attempt to define righteous prayer, it might be helpful to state what righteous prayer is not.
- It’s not avoiding pubic prayer. We can’t be quick to make Jesus’ words here an absolute. The issue is about the heart, not about the place of prayer. The early church devoted themselves to the unity of prayer, and so should we (Acts 2:42).
- It’s not avoiding quoting scripture and other spiritual phrases. For centuries, the Church has used scripture and traditional sayings in prayer. Again, the issue is not what is said, but the authenticity behind what is said. In fact, I believe the Church would do well in praying more Psalms.
- It’s not assuming short prayers are best. Jesus used examples to illustrate a principle. As a result, His examples are often specific to the time and place. For example, in Luke 18, Jesus actually acknowledged the purpose of persistent prayer.
Righteous prayer is all about the HEART. Prayer is about putting away the selfish appeal of our old-self, and putting on the selfless withdrawal of new life. Our prayer life should cause us to withdraw ourselves and sincerely connect with God by using thoughtful and meaningful words.8
Prayer for today
Prayer has to be the guiding force in every believer. In order to do that, our prayer life has to start in the “private prayer room.” That space doesn’t have to be a physical room, rather a space where you can withdraw and connect with God. From that sincere and authentic place of prayer, our “public prayer space” will naturally bring glory to God and not to ourselves or others because our attention is already pointed in the right direction. I believe we fall into the trap of hypocritical prayer because our “private prayer room” is often lacking. Martin Luther challenged believers to live out a continuous authentic prayer life:
“In the morning and in the evening, at table and whenever he [or she] has time, every individual should speak a benediction or the Our Father or the Creed or a psalm.”9
To help, Jesus gave us a model of prayer (6:9-13). We call it The Lord’s Prayer. How do we pray? In daily fellowship (“daily bread”), we direct our attention to the Father, pray for His glory, the establishment of His kingdom and His will, and have a spirit of forgiveness because He forgave us. It’s a selfless prayer focused on God the Father.
- How can you guard yourself against hypocritical prayer?
- How is God calling you to PRAY today?
God wants to connect with us. He doesn’t want us to draw attention to ourselves or fill our prayers with thoughtless words. God wants to hear the sincere and authentic prayers of our hearts, and sometimes that means we have to stop and wait before God.
Our sincere and authentic prayer is the kind of faithful prayer that God rewards.