As I argue in this sermon, we make prayer more complicated than it needs to be. The message of Jesus’ words in today’s scripture is that prayer isn’t that complicated.
Sermon Text: Matthew 6:6-13
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Recently, I was listening to a sermon by a favorite pastor of mine whose church is very large and whose sermons are more intellectually demanding than my own. Unlike me, this preacher seems happily indifferent to using humor, or trying to be “relevant,” or entertaining his audience in any way in his sermons—he just dives right into scripture week after week. So, rightly or wrongly, I perceive that his church must be more advanced in the ways of prayer and in Bible study than the typical Methodist churches of which I’ve been part.
I was surprised, then, when he said that his church had recently conducted a survey on prayer in his congregation. Over half the congregation, he said, admitted that they did not pray regularly—his theologically rich sermons on the subject notwithstanding.
The pastor said that when he read the results of the survey, he was tempted to resign on the spot. Had he been wasting his breath all these years about the power and importance of prayer? Why wasn’t the message getting through?
I’m sympathetic with this pastor. But at the same time, I know from painful personal experience that prayer often seems hard to me. And I’ll bet you’ve experienced prayer as something that’s often difficult.
Not always, of course. In fact, prayer is the easiest thing in the world sometimes… When is it easy? When we are in a crisis. Prayer becomes very easy in those situations. I’m reminded of a hilarious Richard Pryor comedy routine from 1978 about his experience having a heart attack. He describes how that pain in his chest brought him to his knees, and he describes literally speaking to the heart attack, “Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t kill me!” But his next words were directed to God: “God, please don’t let this thing kill me!” And then his heart attack spoke back to him, “Were you talking to God behind my back?” And the pain, he said, just got worse!
I’ve never had a heart attack, but “heart attack” prayers come very easily, I’m sure.
You know another time when prayer comes easily? When you believe that the island you live on is about to be attacked by ballistic missiles! Did you see that terrible false alarm on people’s smartphones in Hawaii yesterday? “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” No, it was not a drill, but it was a false alarm!
Don’t you know that literally tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people in Hawaii were praying yesterday who hadn’t prayed in days, or weeks, or months before yesterday? Why? Because prayer is very easy when you fear you might die in a ballistic missile attack! People say, “Why did this false alarm happen?” I’m sure there are all sorts of interesting technological reasons. But I believe that another, overarching reason that this disaster happened was in order for people to turn to God in prayer! In other words, I’m sure that God used this crisis to get people’s attention. If it takes the fear of death to get people to turn to God, God will use it! It’s very merciful of God to use a disaster to bring people to him, while they still have to time to repent of their sins and turn to God. Because there is a far greater disaster coming upon our world—Judgment Day—and at that point, people won’t be able to repent and turn to God. It will be too late!
“Heart attack” prayers, “ballistic missile threat” prayers, “personal crisis” prayers are good and necessary prayers. But this is not the kind of praying that Jesus is talking about in today’s scripture. He’s talking about the kind of praying that he wants us Christians to do when there isn’t an immediate crisis—the everyday kind of praying that we’re supposed to do. And we know it’s at least daily praying because Jesus says, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Later in Matthew chapter 6, Jesus tells us, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
This trouble won’t usually rise to the level of “ballistic missile threat” trouble or “heart attack” trouble. But there’s always enough trouble each day to set aside time for prayer. To be deliberate about prayer. This is what Jesus means when he says, in verse 6, “Go into your room and shut the door.”
By all means, you can pray spontaneously throughout the day, no matter where you are. If you’re a student and the teacher is handing out exams, by all means pray! If you’re a salesperson and you’re about to make an important sales call, by all means pray! If you’re about to go on an important job interview, by all means pray! God is always listening. God is always ready to hear our prayers! We don’t have to go off to our room and close the door. We don’t have to get on our knees. We don’t even have to close our eyes or bow our heads to pray these very short kind of prayers. We can do that throughout the day, every day. And that’s an excellent kind of prayer. Likewise, we can be in a prayerful frame of mind—sort of like when you call someone, and you finish the conversation, and you don’t press the red “end call” button when the conversation is over. You can just sort of “stay on the line” with God all day—and when you need to pray, by all means, pray!
That kind of prayer is good. But please notice: This is not the kind of prayer that Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about setting aside time each day to pray. He’s talking about being deliberate. Whether you go into a literal room or “closet”—as the King James says—Jesus’ point is, be deliberate about it. I have a particular seat on the couch in our family room. There’s an end table where I put my coffee mug. But that’s a special place I go to where I pray and read the Bible. Every day.
Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley, had 11 children—19, actually, but eight of them died in infancy. But still… eleven children. Can you imagine how busy she was with eleven children? She did not have the luxury of going off by herself to a particular room and shutting the door and praying each day. But you know what she did have? She had a prayer apron that she wore. I’m not kidding. When she needed to pray during the day, she would put her apron over her head. And her children learned that when the apron was over her head—that was the equivalent of her prayer closet. She taught them not to interrupt her when the apron was over her head. Because she was praying.
This is the kind of praying that Jesus is talking about. I began my sermon by talking about how prayer often seems very difficult to me, but Jesus is telling us in his Word this morning that prayer is supposed to be easy.
Jesus offers two reasons in today’s scripture why prayer is supposed to be easy. First, he says in verse 8, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” This ought to be a great encouragement to us. In Romans 8:26, Paul tells us, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” No less a saint than the apostle Paul tells us that even he doesn’t know how to pray—but that’s O.K., because God himself, through the Holy Spirit, is praying through our prayers. So maybe we’re not asking for exactly the right thing—or we’re not asking in the right way. That’s O.K., because the Spirit is interceding with the Father for us, and he’ll pray our prayers in the right way… he’ll transform our prayers in order to make sure that we’re asking for the right thing.
I’ve heard it said that God hears the prayer underneath the prayer. In other words, we have a deep need; we don’t quite know what will meet it. But we mistakenly think we know, and in our own fumbling, faltering way, we ask for that thing. But God knows what it will really take to meet that need—so he gives us that instead of what we asked for. Because God is far more interested in meeting our need than giving us exactly what we ask for. This is what Jesus means in verse 8, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
I know I’ve said this before a few times. It comes from pastor Tim Keller. But it’s so good, it bears repeating whenever I talk about the subject of prayer: When we pray, God gives us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows. God gives us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows. I think that’s a perfectly good summary of Jesus’ words in verse 8 and and Paul’s words in Romans 8:26.
God gives us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows. But let’s be careful. This does not mean the following: “God will give us what we would have asked for if only we had bothered asking.”
Do you see the difference? God does not promise to give us either what we ask for—or what we would have asked for—if we don’t ask at all. This “groaning,” intercessory work of the Spirit—this ability for God to answer the “prayer underneath the prayer”—doesn’t happen apart from God’s people actually praying! The apostle James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”
Asking means praying, and praying means deliberately speaking words to God! The kind of prayer Jesus is talking about in today’s scripture is not a “state of mind,” it’s not an awareness of God’s presence, it’s not a warm feeling that God is with you as you go about your day—it’s actually speaking words, it’s verbal communication, either out loud or in your head or you can write down your prayers on paper; you can even read other people’s prayers and make them your prayers if they express your heart—but these are words from you that are directed to God.
How hard is that? Doesn’t that seem incredibly easy?
Now…let me say something that will make prayer even easier. Maybe you already know this, but I confess that for decades of my Christian life, I was confused about it… Are you ready: Prayer is not listening for God. Prayer is talking; prayer is not listening. Prayer is one-way communication from us to God. And I’m sure that some of you are resisting these words; if your experience is like my experience, you may even have been told somewhere along the line that listening is the most important part of prayer—that you should spend as much time listening to God as you spend talking to God. Or more! And these same teachers would hasten to add that God doesn’t speak to us in an audible voice—it’s more like a feeling or an intuition—a tug on the heartstrings. And that if you’re not “hearing from” God in this way, then you’re not praying properly.
So for years when I prayed, I thought I was supposed to wait until I heard something from God, or felt an intuition, or experienced some warm sense of God’s presence inside me—and unless or until I did, I hadn’t prayed properly. And I got discouraged with prayer! “It isn’t working,” I’d tell myself. “I’m not doing it right!”
But brothers and sisters, where on earth does idea that come from? “Listening for God” is not prayer; it’s mysticism. And it can a very harmful idea. [God is sovereign over our thoughts and feelings, too.] When we wait for God to “speak” to us in this way—to give us some reassurance or some warm feeling—it may be disguising a lack of faith… as if we don’t really believe that God has heard us if we just tell him… we need him to prove to us that he’s heard us. But when we pray we’re supposed to have faith that God hears us—whether he gives us any feedback or not!
It’s simply not what Jesus is talking about here! Where does Jesus say that prayer is “listening” in today’s scripture? Look at verse 9: “Pray then like this…” And then Jesus gives us the Model Prayer to help guide us in our own prayers. If we follow Jesus’ instructions, we can be confident that we are praying “correctly.” If “listening” were such an important part of prayer, why doesn’t Jesus, in the very model prayer that he gives us, tell us to do so?
No, if we want to listen to God speak to us, what do we need to do? It’s very simple… Open the Bible. This is God’s Word to us—over 750,000 words from God to us! As we read it and study it, the Holy Spirit can guide us in applying it to our lives—and specific things that we’re dealing with in our lives. But the priority of Bible-reading in our lives is a sermon for another time. That’s not what Jesus is talking about here. O.K.?
Speaking of the Bible, I want to share with you something that has helped me recently: Lamentations 2:19. The prophet Jeremiah is urging his fellow Jews, who have watched the Babylonians destroy their capital city, their temple, their way of life, to repent and pray to God. He says,
Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street.
I find the 19th-century British preacher Charles Spurgeon’s words on this verse very helpful here. He writes:
[W]e cannot pray too simply. Just hear how Jeremiah put it: “Pour out your heart like water before the Lord’s presence.” How does water pour out? The quickest way it can—that’s all; it never thinks much about how it runs. That is the way the Lord loves to have our prayers pour out before him.
Pour out your heart like water.
Prayer—at least Christian prayer—is always a matter of the heart. When prayer becomes disconnected from our heart, that’s when it becomes boring and routine. It becomes a duty we have to perform. It becomes an empty ritual. It becomes drudgery—something to check off our list each day.
Has that happened to you?
If so, reengage your heart. Do what Jeremiah says: Pour your heart out like water.
Consider this: You’ve got something on your heart right now that is waiting to be poured out. What is it? Start your prayers today with that… And maybe you think, “Yes, but God doesn’t want to hear this trivial stuff—or this petty stuff—or this sinful stuff.” Are you kidding? He already knows all about everything that you’re thinking and feeling. Better than you do! Don’t censor yourself. Like Spurgeon says, “Water never thinks much about how it runs.”
So tell God what’s on your heart: What is worrying you today? What is making you feel afraid today? Who or what is angering you today? Why are you hurting? Who or what is causing the pain? What temptations are you facing? What sins are you struggling with? What’s making you feel guilty?
Whatever is in your heart, pour it out like water!
And then ask God for help.
Start there. Start with what’s on your heart! Our heavenly Father wants to hear from you. He wants you to pray today more than he wants you to do so “correctly,” by following a proper form or pattern of prayer.
Will you pour out your heart to him like water this week?
1. Matthew 6:34 ESV
2. James 4:2c ESV
3. Charles Spurgeon, The Spurgeon Study Bible CSB (Nashville: Holman, 2017), 1073.