In the middle of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, our Lord gives us some beneficial instruction on the practice of prayer (Matthew 6:5-14). It’s insightful that before he teaches us how to pray (what to say), he first tells us how to prepare our hearts for prayer, by discussing three attitudes we should keep in mind.
First, he shows us that our praying should be sincere.
“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.” (vs. 5).
Keep your prayers real, Jesus is saying. I’ve been called to offer prayer at public functions over the years, and when I do I try to keep in mind who my audience really is – not the people, but God. And that’s what Jesus is saying here. Sincere prayer is praying as though God is really listening. It’s funny how people respond to that sincerity.
Usually when I pray at these events, I speak to the Lord as if he’s present with us in the very room, and right beside each one in their lives. Almost every time, someone will come up to me afterwards and comment on my short, little prayer. “Wow, you talked to God as though he was really there!” they’ll marvel. I’ll smile and thank them, but it’s sad as well, to think that real, sincere, heartfelt prayer is such an uncommon thing.
Jesus gives a second benchmark for real prayer. It should be in secret.
“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.” (vs.6)
There’s a place for public praying – as I described, and a place for corporate praying as well – with other brothers and sisters in Christ. But most of our praying should be a one-on-one secret conversation between you and the Lord alone. Besides Scripture meditation, prayer is the most powerful way for us to connect directly to God and nurture our relationship with him.
Jesus made sure he began his day with this secret connecting with the Father. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35).
I think we can see the logic in this. C.S. wrote, “The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”
But it shouldn’t just be a once-a-day check-in with the Lord. “Pray without ceasing,” Scripture urges us (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The point is to develop the awareness that we are in God’s presence continually, and so take time throughout the day to call on him.
Secret prayer can include what are called “popcorn prayers”, prayers that are prompted by the things you come across or think about throughout the day. You can quietly pray while you’re standing in line at the grocery store, and see the young mom in aisle 7 struggling with her kids. You ask the Lord to give you words to speak and ears to listen as you head into your 3:30 meeting. You pray for a troubled spot in the world after you hear a news report about it.
Secret prayer should also include what are called “daily offices”. While you should strive to have a daily “quiet time” or “devotion” of focused study and prayer (15-30 minutes worth is a sweet spot to aim for), it is healthy several times throughout the day to re-enact that quiet time moment but on a much shorter scale. It need take no more than two or three minutes, provided in those moments you stop what you’re doing, center your thoughts on the Lord and off the rush of the day, get still and quiet, then call to mind or quietly repeat a simple Scripture verse (the Psalms are filled with short meditation verses) or a simple prayer (“Jesus, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me.”)
The Lord meets us in life-giving and powerful ways when we learn to pray secretly.
Jesus gives us a third preparatory note about prayer. It should be simple.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, 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.” (vs.7)
Younger Christians are often intimidated by the praying of more seasoned believers, who pray with words, and length, and fervency that they believe they can never match. But don’t be intimidated, and don’t think you need to necessarily imitate the “professional pray-ers”.
What moves God when we pray? When he hears his children talk to him in simple childlike wonder and faith, and in simple everyday language. God already knows better than you do what you’re going through and what you need in your life. He’s your Heavenly Father, a real Being with real Intelligence and real Personality, who really wants to talk with you. Don’t make prayer harder than it is. Just start praying!
I’ll never forget a story told by an African missionary. He marveled how his early converts really took to prayer. Each villager who accepted Christ had a separate spot in the thicket where he or she would pour their heart out to God. Over time the paths of their secret hideaways became well worn. Because of that, if one of these believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon obvious to others. And do you know what they would say to that neglectful Christian? “Brother, sister, the grass grows on your path.”
How is the grass on your path these days, dear friend? Are you taking ample time to seek your Lord with sincere, secret, and simple prayer?
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.