Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Teach Me How to Pray

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Leslie: This is Nancy Leigh DeMoss. 

Nancy: Sometime with prayer there is the extraordinary, apparent lack of relationship between cause and effect. The things you pray for don’t happen and some of the things you don’t pray for do happen. You say, “Go figure. Does prayer work?”

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Tuesday, September 18.

You’re invited to connect with God in new ways. Jesus was once asked by His followers how they should pray, and He told them. Don’t you think if the Son of God, Himself, told us to pray a certain way we’d better follow? To help you get the most out of The Lord's Prayer, Nancy will teach a different series on it over the upcoming. Here she is to begin the first. 

Nancy: I came across a collection recently of children’s prayers—things children said to God. Perhaps you’ve seen some of those.

  • This one said, “Dear God, in church they told us what You do. Who does it when You are on vacation?”
  • This one, “Dear God, are You really invisible or is that just a trick?” Lucy said that.
  • Norma said, “Dear God, did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?”
  • “Dear God,” Joy said, “Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.”
  • Speaking of asking God for things, Bruce said, “Dear God, please send me a pony. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up.”
  • Then, “Dear God, if You give me a genie lamp, like Aladdin, I will give you anything you want except my money or my chess set.”
  • How about this? “Dear God, maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.”
  • “Dear God, I bet it’s very hard for You to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only four people in my family, and I can never do it.”
  • Here’s one from Donna, who said, “Dear God, we read Thomas Edison made light, but in school they said You did it. So I bet he stoled your idea. Sincerely, Donna.”

If nothing else, you have to admit these kids are honest. That may be more than can be said of some of our prayers sometimes. But in those children’s simple, innocent, childlike ways, they illustrate—don’t they—some of our misconceptions about God? Some of our misconceptions about prayer? Some of the questions we have in our hearts, though we might not ever say it about why God does what He does and how He does what He does?

It makes me wonder as I listen to those—we laugh at them, and they’re cute—but it makes me wonder how some of our prayers, some of my prayers, sound to God. Our prayers reveal a lot about what we think. They reveal a lot about where our hearts are. Prayer, I find, is difficult for most people I know.

How many of you would say you struggle with the whole area of prayer? There’s some aspect of prayer that you just find really difficult. Okay, a lot of hands in here. Most of us at least, at times, feel guilty when we think about prayer because we know we should be praying more than we do. I think most of us feel inadequate. Even the apostle Paul said, “We don’t know how to pray. We don’t know what we should pray for. We don’t know how to pray about so many different situations” (Rom. 8:26 paraphrase).

I think at times we feel confused about prayer, maybe even disturbed or perturbed at God. We wouldn’t maybe say that, but sometimes with prayer there’s this extraordinary, apparent lack of relationship between cause and effect. The things you pray for don’t happen and some of the things you don’t pray for do happen. You say, “Go figure. Does prayer work? Does it not?”

Some of these things we wouldn’t probably say out loud, but we do feel that frustration. A lot of times we have unanswered questions about prayer—things like, “Why pray about something, if God already knows it all and He’s sovereign? He’s going to do what He’s going to do. Why should we even pray?”

Sometimes we don’t verbalize those questions and those thoughts, but I have to confess to you that prayer is a very, very difficult area of my spiritual life. But in the past year or so I’ve been asking the Lord to teach me how to pray.

As part of that search over the last several months, I’ve been studying and meditating on the Lord’s Prayer. He gave that prayer to teach His disciples how to pray. I’ve been saying, “Lord teach me to pray,” and that quest has led me to the Lord’s Prayer. It has been such a rich, rich study.

I want to share some things that God has been showing me just out of these few verses we find in the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke that we call, The Lord’s Prayer.

I want to encourage you as we embark on this study to do your own meditation and study on the Lord’s Prayer. Most of you have it memorized. It’s very familiar to most of us. Even many people who have no claim to a relationship with Christ can quote the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe they grew up saying it in church; they’re familiar with it.

But I want to encourage you over these next days and weeks to be praying this prayer and thinking about it while you’re praying it; meditating on it as I’ve been doing phrase by phrase, word by word—fleshing it out, asking God to work that aspect of the Lord’s Prayer into the warp and woof of your heart.

Now for the first few sessions, before we even dive into the Lord’s Prayer itself, I think it would be helpful to give some background, some context. Where does the Lord’s Prayer fall in the Scripture? Why is it there? How does Jesus set up the Lord’s Prayer?

Turn in your Bibles, if you would, to the gospel of Matthew, chapter six. This is where we find the most familiar traditional rendering of the Lord’s Prayer in the Scripture. The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew six, falls within the context of what we call The Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters five, six, and seven—Jesus’ first and longest recorded sermon, The Sermon on the Mount.

Remember that in The Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks about righteousness. He compares man-made righteousness or man’s attempts to be righteous. When I think about man-made righteousness, I think about the Pharisees who were in the audience that day—some of them. The Pharisees knew how to dot their “i’s” and cross their “t’s” and look right and act right and talk right.

Jesus addressed the kind of righteousness they had—external. It was visible. It could be seen. But then He contrasted it to God’s righteousness, true righteousness, which is a matter of the heart. In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges the Pharisees and people who wanted to be righteous and He said, “God’s righteousness is something you cannot attain to.”

The Sermon on the Mount is where you have verses like the end of Matthew five, where it says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (v. 48). Jesus sets this incredible standard. That is the standard.

Now Christ came to earth in order to fulfill that standard, so we could have access to God even though we are utterly unrighteous. But in The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is laying the groundwork for His life, for His ministry, and for His sacrificial death. His life is leading to the cross. But before people love the cross, they’ve got to realize that they are sinners. A lot of that kind of teaching on righteousness is in The Sermon on the Mount.

Then there’s a lot of teaching in The Sermon on the Mount about the kingdom of God. What does it look like? What is it like to be in the kingdom of God? What is the kingdom of God? How does it work? How does it operate?

Jesus talks about what things are like for those who are in the kingdom of God; what kind of relationships they have. How does being under the reign and rule of God affect the way we relate to other people?

In The Sermon on the Mount you have:

  • a lot of teaching about relationships.
  • There is teaching on values. What are the values of the people who are part of the kingdom of God? What are their priorities? What's important to them?
  • How do they deal with wealth? Jesus talks quite a bit about money.
  • He talks about things.
  • He talks about worry. Why is worry inconsistent with being in the kingdom of God? We will talk about that as we look at this Lord’s Prayer and the context in which it falls.
  • Jesus talks about the spiritual life—the spiritual activities of people who are in the kingdom of God (6:1-4).
  • Jesus talks about giving alms—depending on what your translation is—doing charitable deeds, good works, acts of service. He talks about what it looks like to do those in a way that is consistent with the kingdom of God; the reign and rule of God.
  • In Matthew 6:5–15, Jesus talks about the whole area of prayer. What is it like to pray in a way that is consistent with the kingdom of God? What is godly prayer? Jesus gives some cautions. He gives some correctives, and He gives an example. This is where we find the Lord’s Prayer—in the middle of this teaching on prayer.
  • Then verses 16–18 of Matthew 6, you have His teaching on fasting, self-control, and self- denial. When you pray, when you give, when you do your good deeds, when you fast—these are things you need to keep in mind.

Immediately before giving the Lord’s Prayer, right in that section on prayer, Jesus gives us two important cautions about the whole subject of prayer. The cautions have to do with why we pray—that’s verses five and six. Then in verses seven and eight, He cautions us about how we pray. So Matthew 6:5–6 talk about why we pray. We’re going to look at that today. Then in the next section we’ll look at 6:7–8, Jesus’ caution about how we pray.

In Matthew 6:5–6, Jesus deals with our motives—our heart. He says in verse 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.

If you’re underlining in your Bible, you might want to underline this phrase: “That they may be seen by others.”

The hypocrites love to pray but they have a heart motive of doing it so that others can see them—that they may be seen by others. “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:5).

Now Jesus gives this caution not just about praying but about the other things He’s talked about in this whole context about giving and about fasting. Look at Matthew 6:1, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people,” doing your religious deeds, giving your alms. Beware of doing it—what are the next words?—“in order to be seen by them.” There’s that phrase again. You might want to underline it.

It appears again in verse 2. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets.” Why? Why do they do it? What’s their motive? “That they may be praised by others.” There’s that phrase again. That has to do with their motive.

And then verse 5, “And when you pray, don’t do it like the hypocrites do, so they can be seen by others” (paraphrased). Then in verse 16 you see this same concept. “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites [this is the third time we’ve seen that word ], for they disfigure their faces.” What is their motive? “That their fasting may be seen by others.”

Jesus says, “In all these things that you do, these acts of righteousness, these spiritual deeds—in your spirituality, guard your heart and check your motives.” Are you doing it to be seen by others?

We saw that word hypocrite three times, just in those first sixteen verses. That word is actually a term that comes from the Greek theater. It has to do with a character who wore a mask. You couldn’t tell from the mask who the person behind the mask really was. They were putting up a front; they were putting on an image; trying to convince you they are somebody they really aren’t. They were playacting. That’s a hypocrite.

Jesus says, “When you pray, when you give, when you fast, when you do your religious good deeds, do them, but don’t do them like the hypocrites do.” You’re putting up a mask. You want people to think you’re spiritual even though you really aren’t. You’re doing it to parade, to advertise your righteousness. That’s what the Pharisees did. They loved to pray, but where did they love to pray? Where everybody could see them. God’s not pleased with that. Those people have their reward. They’re trying to impress others.

I don’t know if this is a struggle for you, but it is a huge issue in my life. When you’re involved in public ministry, it becomes maybe an even greater challenge. This is a subtle insidious battle of the flesh, and only God knows each of our hearts.

I can’t tell your heart on this matter, and you cannot tell mine. You cannot know what my motives are when I teach the Word of God, when I pray, when I serve, when I bless someone. You don’t know what my heart is. You don’t know why I’m doing it. God knows. Jesus said you better check your own heart and ask God to show you what your own motives are.

I have found that this secret, subtle, hidden desire to make a good impression is something that taints almost everything I do. We want others to know that we cooked that meal for that family in need. We’re glad to do it but we want to make sure others know about it. Or the person we ministered to or the sacrificial gift we gave or the extra effort we made up in the middle of the night helping some sick child. We’re glad to do it, but we want to make sure others know we did it.

That subtle, secret, hidden desire—and I have found hundreds of ways to drop subtle hints to make others aware of what I have done to serve or bless others. This passage says, “That’s being a hypocrite.” Jesus is not pleased with those gifts. He doesn’t reward those. He says, “They have their reward.” We’ll see that in this passage.

I’m only saying this—you know it takes one to know one. How often am I sitting in a group praying and I’m not even paying attention to what somebody else is praying? I’m planning my own prayer. What am I going to say? Because I’m not praying really to God. I talk like I’m praying to God, but I’m really praying to those people.

By the way, that's why it is so difficult for some people to pray aloud in public, because they are so concerned about what others may think. 

I ask myself questions like this:

  • Would I be as faithful, as dedicated, as sacrificial, as prayerful, as “spiritual” if no one ever saw or knew what I did?
  • If no one ever noticed?
  • If no one ever commented?
  • If no one ever thanked me?
  • Am I as “spiritual” in the private recesses of my heart as I am in public?
  • Or is my public life or ministry more impressive than my spiritual life and my private life? Are the two consistent with each other? Am I in public no more than what I am in private?

Those are the kinds of things Jesus is addressing here.

He gives this caution about motives and then He gives the corrective. Verse 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.

There are three things I see in that verse that help us with this issue of motives. First of all, Jesus says, “Go into your room.” Some of your translations, if you have the Old King James it says, “Go into your closet.” The NASB says “an inner room.” It speaks of any type of small room—any private place. It could be even a small storage closet. It’s some place that’s off the beaten path.

It’s saying, “Get away from the thoroughfare where everybody else is. Get out of the public eye and go into this most private place you can pray.

It’s the opposite of the Pharisees—the hypocrites, who would go out into public and would love to pray standing in the synagogues or on the street corners. Jesus says, “If you want to correct that motive, go find a private place where no one sees, where no one knows, and pray. Then don’t tell everybody how long you spent there. Go into your room.”

Now Jesus isn’t condemning public prayer. I want to make that clear. He’s saying it’s just hypocrisy if your public prayer life is not an expression and an overflow and an outflow of your private prayer life. If you’re praying in public in a way you seldom pray in private, then there’s something wrong with that picture.

Now you may be thinking, “Well, I’ve got three or four or six or eight children and there is no way I can really get alone or get private. There’s no place in my house that isn’t occupied.” I think of the story I’ve heard many times about Susanna Wesley, the mother of Charles and John Wesley, who had nineteen children—ten of whom died when they were little. But she still had lots of children.

It was said that she would pray two hours a day and that when she couldn’t find a private, quiet place, she would just pull her apron up over her head. She made herself a room where she could go and pray to her Father. If it’s important to us, we’ll find it. We'll find a place, we'll find a time to get alone with our Heavenly Father.

Then Jesus says, “Pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). When you go into this private place, pray to your Father. Now that’s in contrast to the hypocrites we just read about who love to stand and pray in public places where others would hear them. 

As we look at the Lord’s Prayer over these next several sessions, we’re going to see that these are thoughts that we need to direct to our Father in heaven. Listen—there’s nobody else who can answer those prayers other than God. Do you want your prayers answered? Don’t pray them to men. Pray them to God.

Then Jesus says, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” He’s saying that our prayers, our spiritual activities will be rewarded. That word reward is used seven times in these first eighteenverses of Matthew 6. The word reward means: "your wages, your hire, your compensation." It’s not wrong to want to be rewarded for praying, or for serving the Lord, or for giving.

The question is: Who do you want to reward you? Do you want to be rewarded by men or do you want to be rewarded by God? It’s our motives—our motives in serving, our motives in giving, our motives in praying—that determine our reward. God says, “You pray with a sincere heart and I will reward your prayers.”

Now let me just remind you that our prayers may not be rewarded instantly. Sometimes those prayers are sowing seeds of the harvest which is not seen for years to come. I’m experiencing in my life today answers to prayers that my father prayed on his knees thirty, forty years ago or more. He prayed and God is answering those prayers. He’s been with the Lord now for many years, but God is answering those prayers in my life today. His prayers are being rewarded.

Pray to your Father who is in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you—openly.

Leslie: Nancy Leigh DeMoss has been providing important background helping us understand the context of the Lord’s Prayer. 

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Everybody can pray. Jesus wanted to convey this idea to His disciples even though they were living among leaders that discouraged ordinary people from praying. Nancy will continue explaining the context of the Lord’s Prayer tomorrow. Now let’s pray with Nancy.

Nancy: Father, I want to thank You for using this passage to search my own heart and for bringing conviction about motives that are hypocritical. Thank You also for just working more to root out of my own heart that subtle, secret love of praise of men. Lord, I just want to say that I want to have a pure heart. I want to pray and give and serve for Your glory, for Your pleasure, for Your reward and not to make an impression on others.

Lord, would You purify my heart—purify our hearts. As we embark on this study together, would You teach us to pray? I pray in Jesus’ holy name, amen.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

 All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.


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