Praying Lesson 6: How Not to Pray

Lesson 6: How Not to Pray[1]

No one in the Bible was more interested in prayer than Jesus. Prayer was a natural and regular part of His life. He could speak to His Father spontaneously and almost conversationally. He could also devote long periods to planned prayer. Not surprisingly, prayer was one of the important matters in which He instructed His disciples.

A substantial portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:5-15) focuses on prayer. The positive side of Jesus’ instruction takes the form of the Lord’s Prayer, which is designed to provide a template for His followers to employ in their prayer lives. Immediately before the Lord’s Prayer, however, Jesus offers words of negative instruction. Before He teaches His disciples how they should pray, He describes ways in which they should not.

  1. Don’t pray like the hypocrites (Matt 6:5-6).
    1. Hypocrisy is an inherent danger in any spiritual exercise. How does one pray, give, or fast like a hypocrite? According to Jesus, spiritual exercises become hypocritical when they are performed in order to impress people—to “be seen of men” (Matt 6:1, 5, 16). One must choose between divine and human praise. Even the most holy exercises can be performed to impress people rather than God.
    2. No tendency is more natural than the desire to divert glory from God to self. This is exactly the inclination against which Jesus was warning. Those who engage in spiritual pursuits in order to be seen by people do get a reward—they receive worship, however briefly. But Jesus cautions that such people have received all that they are going to get—the praise of men. They should expect no praise from God.
    3. Consequently, Jesus commands that spiritual exercises are best performed in secret. The person who gives should not let his right hand know what his left is doing. The person who fasts should wash and dress as normal without telling others about his fast. The person who prays should address God privately. These acts, performed in secret for the pleasure of God alone, win God’s approval.
    4. Of course, pubic prayer is not wrong; the Bible contains many examples of public prayers. But we must be careful not to use prayer as a means of exalting ourselves. The focus must always be on God, not on self. Our attitude should be “Look at Him!” rather than “Look at me!”
  2. Don’t pray like idolaters (Matt 6:7-8).
    1. According to Jesus, idolaters pray in empty repetitions, believing that their many words will gain a hearing from their deities. The true and living God, however, is never impressed by pointless reiteration.
      1. We do not have to gain God’s attention in prayer. The prophets of Baal worried that they might find that their god was asleep, absent in travel, or otherwise indisposed. They wailed and cut themselves in order to get him to notice them. The true and living God is not like that. He is aware even of a sparrow when it falls. He knows His children in such detail that He notes the number of hairs on their heads.
      2. We do not inform God about our needs in prayer. He already knows them. He has anticipated our petitions before we utter them. Not only so, but God is already disposed to respond. He is not only aware of our needs, but also deeply concerned with them.
      3. Since God knows all about us, we are now free to devote our primary attention to the work of God instead of our immediate needs. Our lives need not be dominated by anxiety over daily necessities. God is willing and able to supply these things while His children devote themselves to the things that matter most. This confidence changes the way that we pray. While we certainly will wish to share our daily needs with our loving Father, our gaze should lift beyond our present little circumstances and our hearts should be quickened by His larger work in the world.
    2. Repetition need not be mindless or idolatrous.
      1. Jesus does not forbid some repetition. The Bible contains several examples of repetition in prayer. For example, in Psalm 136, every verse ends with the refrain, “for His mercy endureth forever.” This repeats twenty-six times.
      2. Jesus does not forbid the use of written prayers. Many of the psalms were written as prayers that are meant to be used and repeated by God’s people, whether individually or corporately. When we pray a psalm of David or Asaph, we are repeating someone else’s words, but the repetition is not empty. The opposite of vain repetition is not spontaneity (which may also be vain), but thoughtfulness.
      3. Jesus does not forbid the recitation of memorized prayers. We memorize portions of Scripture so that we can use them in our own prayer lives. We praise God using the words of the biblical authors (e.g., psalms of David, prophecy of Isaiah or Jeremiah, prayers of Paul). We may confess our sins using phrases drawn directly from the Bible (e.g., Ps 51:1-3, 139:23-24).
    3. Whether our prayer is one that we compose or one that we have learned, what matters is that it is spoken with understanding and offered from our heart. Sincere prayer is not mechanical, merely repeating words with no meaning. Sincere prayer is an expression of genuine devotion, submission, and expectation.


[1] Much of this lesson is from Kevin Bauder, “Don’t Pray Like This,” from In the Nick of Time, 5/4/12 and 5/11/12.


Lessons in this Course
Table of Contents
Prayer Lesson 1: The Importance of Prayer
Prayer Lesson 2: Overcoming the Difficulties of Prayer
Prayer Lesson 3: What is Prayer?
Prayer Lesson 4: Our Perspective on Prayer
Praying Lesson 5: Praying in Jesus’ Name
Praying Lesson 6: How Not to Pray
Praying Lesson 7: The Model Prayer Matt 6:9-15
Praying Lesson 8: Pray-ers that Pleases God
Praying Lesson 9: Persistence in Prayer
Praying Lesson 10: Learning from Paul’s Prayers
Praying Lesson 11: Learning from OT Prayers
Praying Lesson 12: Prayer as an Expression of Spirituality
Praying Lesson 13: The Five Different Kinds of Prayer in the Psalms
Praying Lesson 14: Prerequisites to Effective Prayer
Praying Lesson 15: Prayer and Fasting

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