Perhaps more than anything, our prayer life reveals the true state of our relationship with God. Because this is so, Jesus wants everyone who follows him to understand the nature of prayer and to practice it in such a way that it glorifies God and nourishes their lives. Therefore, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins his teaching on prayer by encouraging his people to pray (Matthew 6:5, 6, 7, 9), to avoid religious hypocrisy in prayer (Matthew 6:5-6), and to avoid religious ritual in prayer (Matthew 6:7-8). He then offers a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-15) that we are free to pray word for word, but that is designed to teach us about the nature and practice of prayer. In today’s devotional we will ponder his three encouragements in Matthew 6:5-8, and then tomorrow we will consider his model prayer in Matthew 6:9-15.

When You Pray

Simple words are easy to miss but let us not miss the first four words of Jesus’ teaching which he then repeats three times: “and when you pray” (Matthew 6:5, 6, 7, 9). Jesus assumes that prayer will be a normal part of life with God, and how can it be otherwise? To know God is to have an in intimate relationship with him (John 17:3) and central to any healthy relationship is communication. God primarily communicates with his people through his Word and by his Spirit, and his people primarily communicate with him through their words, although sometimes the longings of our hearts are beyond words.

While the Lord patiently shepherds his people along the way, his goal for our prayer lives is clear and unflinching, namely, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Lord wants his people to talk to him at all times, about all things. He wants us to know what it means to live in constant, conscious communion with him. He wants us to experience the joy of living all of life toward him, with him, and for his glory. Please don’t miss the importance of these four simple words: “and when you pray” (Matthew 6:5, 6, 7, 9).

So, how are you doing? Do you pray? If so, what is the nature of your prayer life and what does it reveal about your relationship with God? What would Jesus have you do at this time to grow toward his passion for you, namely, to pray without ceasing?

Freedom from Religious Hypocrisy

As we learn the joy and discipline of ceaseless prayer, Jesus warns us away from two errors. First, he wants us to avoid religious hypocrisy. The Greek word for “hypocrisy” refers to acting, that is, to pretending to be something we are not. When actors act, the audience understands that they are pretending and therefore their work is not inherently deceptive. But when religious people act, their “audience” assumes they are representing the truth, and therefore their behavior is inherently deceptive. This not only makes them liars but also blasphemers because they use God as a means of gaining adulation for themselves.

In Jesus’ day, some of the Jewish leaders played the hypocrite by standing in the prominent places of the synagogues and on the street corners where they could draw attention to themselves by praying eloquent prayers. They put on a show under the guise that they were not putting on a show, and therefore their full reward was gained on earth and not in heaven. In other words, they received worldly adulation, but they did not gain an eternal reward from God.

Jesus wants better things for his disciples. He wants us to know God, trust God, and have confidence that he’s near to us and hears our prayers. Accordingly, he instructed us, “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” (Matthew 6:6). The focus here is not so much on the place of prayer, or even on the reward, but on the reality of the relationship, one has with God through Jesus. When we are truly satisfied and confident in God, we can pray in a private room or in a house of worship or even on a street corner without putting on a show. And when we pray in this way, we learn that our reward is, in part, answered prayer but much more so a growing intimacy with God himself. Indeed, when God is our aim, he is our reward.

So, how are you doing? Do you pray and engage in other religious activities to gain the approval, attention, and adulation of others? Or do you do these things as part of your growing communion with God? What would Jesus have you do at this time to grow in intimacy with and confidence in him?

Freedom from Religious Ritual

The second thing Jesus wants us to avoid in prayer is religious ritual. This doesn’t mean that there’s no place for certain ceremonial practices like bowing or the lifting of hands, rather, it means that religious rituals and phraseology in themselves gain us nothing before God. In Jesus’ day, as in our day, some Gentile worshipers believed that the way to be heard by their various gods was to repeat the same words a certain number of times with the proper zeal and intonation. In other words, they believed that prayer is a kind of magic that requires the proper incantation to get the desired result.

However, Jesus wants better things for his disciples. He wants us to know God, trust in God, and speak to him from our hearts. He wants us to have the confidence that God has become our Father through him, and that he delights to hear our prayers even though he already knows what we need before we ask him. Indeed, prayer is not a means of informing God about the particulars of our lives and desires, rather, it’s a way of communing with God and processing our lives with him until his mind is our mind, his desire is our desire, and his will is our will. Prayer is at the heart of a growing intimacy with God.

So, how are you doing? Do you tend to envision prayer as a sort of magic wherein you say the right things in the right ways and gain the desired result? Or do you understand that prayer is at the heart of a growing intimacy with God? What would Jesus have you do at this time to move away from false conceptions and toward true conceptions about prayer?

Obedience and the Joy of the Lord

As I mentioned at the beginning of this devotional, perhaps more than anything, our prayer life reveals the true state of our relationship with God. Because this is so, I want to encourage to spend time with Jesus, to meditate on his words in Matthew 6:5-8 and to take whatever steps he leads you to take to grow in the way he wants you to grow. Don’t hurry. Take your time. Believe that Jesus wants to speak to you and guide you in his ways. Open your heart to his wisdom. And as you learn to follow him, know that he will lead you higher and deeper into his eternal joy.

May the Lord greatly bless our lives as we ponder his words and walk in his ways!