It is very easy to turn prayer into yet another of those things that we do in order to make ourselves feel either good or at least not bad, or to make others feel good about us, or to impress God.
It is easy for prayer to become one of the most self-centred things that we do, and also one of the greatest burdens that we impose onto ourselves.
I hope that in these few short minutes as we look again at Jesus' teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-8, we will glimpse just how gloriously liberating prayer can be. It can set us free from self and free from the need to 'perform' in prayer.
Prayer is not always a blessing.
In the story that Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee went to the right place. He addressed the right God: he addressed God, the God of Abraham. He said, 'God I thank you that I am not like other people. I thank you that I tithe, that I keep the law, that I am very devout, and that I am not like sinners'. Jesus says, 'He may be addressing God but he is not praying to God. He is praying to himself'.
Prayer for him had become a curse
I remember watching a programme about Madonna. She was asked if she prayed. She said, "Yes: Before I go on stage, I get my crew around me and we pray, 'God, make them love me'."
But before we condemn that prayer, we need to compare it with our prayers.
So often we use prayer as one of the weapons in the armour of our self-centredness. Prayer is about me and for me. It is either about how I might manipulate the world so that it is better for me or for the people I love; or it is about how I might feel good.
And when that happens, prayer becomes a curse. In the words of Dallas Willard in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Divine Conspiracy, 'the ego swells and the soul shrivels'.
The religious leaders of Jesus' time used prayer as a way of impressing people. They prayed long, eloquent, and very orthodox prayers in public. They prayed to be seen and they were seen.
I sometimes find myself at the beginning of a meeting thinking: 'How am I going to pray in a way that will mean that I live up to people's expectations of me as a 'spiritual' leader?' Or I have to say grace at an official function: 'How am I going to pray so that they think me spiritual and witty and down to earth and erudite?' Or at a prayer meeting I think, 'I'm the vicar. People expect me to pray. But I don't know what to pray’. So I find myself making up words in order to impress. And I hear myself praying, and I think, 'You are not talking to God. You are talking to the people around you'.
And even when we are on our own and pray: it is very easy to feel inadequate or guilty. "I didn't do it right. I didn't pray for long enough. I didn’t say the right words. I spent most of the time thinking about my sister, or about what we were going to do on holiday". Actually distractions in prayer are usually quite helpful - perhaps that is what you should be praying for, asking God to bring his light and wisdom into that situation, so that his will should be done.
And often when I do consciously start to pray for others or for situations, I get overwhelmed: I think of them and the situations, a little voice says, 'You should have done this' or, 'You need to do that'. Instead of releasing burdens to Father God, I pick them up. So - and now I really am making a confession – When I am on my own I very rarely pray for other people or situations, unless those people or situations are already there on my mind.
I’m always really impressed by people say, 'I pray for someone every day'. That is lovely. But it does make me feel guilty. I feel I ought to do the same. But I don't think I pray for anybody everyday - not even my children. And actually I am not sure it matters, because Jesus prays for them everyday, and I pray that his kingdom will come.
Well, let’s look at these few verses, because they are very helpful.
1. They tell us that prayer is basically heart work, unseen work.
I've spoken about this before. The use of the word 'seen' and 'unseen' in these verses is fascinating.
If you pray to be seen you will get your reward in the seen world. If you pray to impress others, then you probably will impress others. You have your reward.
True prayer is about praying unseen to our unseen God, who rewards us - and the implication is that he rewards us with unseen rewards.
This does not mean that we must never pray in groups or with other people. The key thing here is motive: Are we praying to be seen? If the answer is, 'No, we're praying because we wish to seek God', but it so happens that we are seen, then so be it.
When King Darius ordered that nobody was to pray to anyone apart from him, Daniel did not pray with his window open facing
Jesus himself encourages his followers to pray together. But we need to remember that when that happens, we do not meet together to impress each other, but to encourage one another and to lay our burdens and our concerns at Jesus' feet.
And the good news is that what matters to God is not what we think of our prayers, or what other people think of our prayers, but the cry of our inner being to God for mercy.
It was the tax collector, who hid himself in a corner, beat his breast and prayed, 'God have mercy on me a sinner', who was heard.
2. They tell us that our Father in heaven knows what we need before we ask him.
Our Father in heaven knows that we need approval and recognition. He knows that we want to be loved. He knows that at times we are sick with anxiety for ourself or another person, or that we are worried about money. He knows that we long that our children grow into a liberating intimacy with him.
And prayer is not a telling God what we want him to do for us: 'God make them love me'. Prayer is an expression of real gratitude and praise to Him, and a releasing of those deep burdens onto His shoulders. 'Father I am worried about what will happen to the children and young peoples work in the church, but I am handing it over to you. Father I'm worried about our financial situation, and I hand it over to you'.
And the great thing is that God knows what we need even when we do not. Often we just don't know. When we are stressed there can be so much going on in our head that we do not know what to think. When we are depressed it is as if part of our mind has switched off, and we simply find ourselves unable to pray - with no vision and no hope. And so often we do not have the faintest idea about what we should be praying for.
But it doesn’t matter. Because God knows.
So I've begun to realise it doesn't matter that I'm not very good at praying for people or things; it doesn't matter that I personally can't do lists (I think that those of us who tend towards perfectionism will always find lists difficult - because they will never be comprehensive enough); it doesn’t matter that when I pray my words are pretty pathetic and mixed up.
Sometimes I think that is why God gives people the gift of tongues: a heavenly language, maybe a baby language - so that when you do not know what to say in English, you can say something and let the Holy Spirit pray in you and through you! It is why written prayers can be so helpful. It is why some of the greatest prayers are the simplest: 'Come Holy Spirit' or the Jesus prayer. It is why Jesus gave us the Lord's prayer. It is why people do resort to lighting candles or drawing pictures. They can all be different ways of crying out to God through the bedlam of thoughts that at times threaten to overwhelm us.
These verses teach us that it doesn't matter how we pray, because prayer is not about following a formula; it is not about what other people think of how I pray; and it is not about whether my words are up to scratch.
It is about an intimate relationship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us; it is about something that goes on at the unseen level; it is about bringing our thanks and burdens and concerns to him; and it is about praying that his kingdom will come.
But more of that next week.