Sometimes when we pray, it’s hard not to wonder what other people are thinking about our prayer.
Did I say the right words?
Did they notice that I had trouble finding that perfect phrase? Did they think it was too long? Or maybe they thought it wasn’t long enough! Did I “wow” ‘em? Did I embarrass them? Or did I just embarrass myself?
All in all, praying in public is a lot of pressure. There are just so many ways you can goof up a prayer—and then what would people think?
Last week we began a new series about worship. Kingdom worship. That is the kind of worship Jesus wants us to experience. For Jesus, it’s not just an issue of what you do to worship God; it’s the reason why you do it that is crucially important.
You remember that last week we first looked at a general principle found in Matthew 6:1 where Jesus says,
Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
There Jesus is stating a general principle:
If you perform religious acts
to impress other people
then you’ll miss God’s reward.
People worship for many reasons, but those who belong to the kingdom need to watch their motives. When you do “acts of righteousness”—worship—make sure that you’re doing it for God and not just to put on a show for the people around you. In our day, just like in Jesus’ day, there are people who do good religious activities just because they want to look good in front of other people. How can I impress my neighbors or friends? Go to church, give to the poor, say my prayers? Jesus says that if you’re involved in a lot of religious activity just to impress people, then it doesn’t mean anything to God. That’s not what it’s about.
If your motive for going to church, or doing some good deed, or helping the poor, or praying to God or performing some religious duty—if you’re doing those things to gain the admiration of the people around you—then it doesn’t mean anything to God.
To explain the general principle, Jesus gives us three examples to illustrate what he’s talking about. They are giving, praying, and fasting.
Last week we talked about giving to people in need.
Today, we want to talk about praying. Jesus says, let’s not just talk about what you do to show your devotion to God. Let’s talk about why you do it. Let’s talk about your motives for praying.
[Matthew 6:5] And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.
In Jesus’ day there were people whose prayer was nothing more than performance. There were certain customary times for prayer, and these people made it a point to make sure that when it came time to pray, they were in a public place where everyone would be sure to see them praying and hear them praying. They got a lot of attention and they loved it. So they stood out on the street corners or got up in their house of worship and they prayed a prayer that people would remember. They were champion prayers—prayer warriors. And Jesus said, don’t try to be like them. That’s not what prayer is all about.
These people may be claiming to talk to God, but in reality, they’re talking to the people around them. Their motive is not to worship God, but to impress people. So God says, they’ll get just what they’re looking for:
I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
If you were here last week, you might remember that this is an accounting term. It means “paid in full” and it was the word you used when issuing someone a receipt. Those who pray to impress people get the reward of impressed people. And that’s all. The prayer doesn’t mean anything to God. It wasn’t really a prayer to him or for him and so he doesn’t really have anything to do with it.
That is ostentatious prayer, a religious act of worship designed to impress people instead of serving God. Notice the key elements in this type of prayer:
How many of your prayers are ostentatious prayers? How many of your prayers are said not for God’s benefit, but for the benefit of the people who are listening?
I think it’s easy to slip into this kind of prayer. I learned how to do this when I was just a little guy. We’d have people over for dinner and Dad would have one of us pray for the meal. I’d try to pray like I’d heard my Dad pray. And after the prayer, someone might say, “Great job! Well done!” as if I’d just finished a performance—and maybe in a way I had.
Prayer can be a kind of performance, saying the right words in the right way, smoothly, loudly and clearly, pausing at just the right moments for effect. For some, talking to God requires a special language to show proper respect. Everyone knows that God speaks Old Shakespearean English from the 1600’s. Otherwise he wouldn’t have written the Bible with all those thee’s, thou’s and shalt not’s. Prayers must begin a certain way and end a certain way. Apparently it’s very important to get the form just right. And that’s one of the reasons that they make written prayers, especially those in rhyme—so we can know what to say when we pray:
Now I lay me down to sleep.
Pray the Lord my soul to keep.
You know I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with written prayers or with King James English. What I am saying is that when we pray, we’re often too concerned with “getting it right”, and that the reason we’re so concerned about that is because other people are listening, and we want our prayers to sound good to them.
But Jesus says, that’s not the kind of prayer I want you to learn. And by contrast, he tells us in verse 6 how we should pray:
 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.
When you pray, make it a prayer between just you and God. Go someplace where you can’t be seen—a hidden place—and God, who also can’t be seen, will meet you in that hidden place.
I’ve got a confession to make. You know what’s really hard for me about prayer? It’s hard for me to pray to God because I can’t see him. I’m a big people person. I love to talk to people. But I can see people. And I can’t see God. So it’s really hard for me to pray to the unseen God. When I’m praying all by myself, I get easily distracted. My mind wanders. Suddenly I realize that somewhere about 5 minutes ago I must have stopped praying. You know what helps me with that? Praying with other people. We’re there for a common purpose and that helps me focus on prayer. My visible brothers and sisters help me sense the presence of the invisible God. So for me, it is big help to pray together in a group and to pray out loud.
But here’s another way you can keep your focus on God during prayer: pray out loud, even if you’re alone and no one else but God is listening. That also helps me. Your hidden place doesn’t need to be in a closet. It doesn’t even need to be indoors! Go for a walk and talk to God. You might look a little strange to the neighbors, but so what? Talking out loud helps me have a conversation with a God that I cannot see.
I don’t think this verse means that all prayer MUST be done in private.
Jesus himself sometimes prayed out loud with his disciples present. In the book of Acts, there are several examples of public prayer in the early church.
What he is trying to say is that prayer is something you say to God. Even if it’s out loud and other people can hear it, remember that you’re not talking to all those other people. Prayer is talking to God. You’re just letting them listen in on your conversation. So Jesus is saying, even if you’re with other people, keep your communication between you and God.
Remember the “dome of silence” from the old TV show, “Get Smart”? Whenever Max wanted a private conversation with the Chief, he’s insist on using the “dome of silence” and this big plastic dome would drop out of the ceiling and cover just the two of them. It’s kind of a corny illustration, but that’s what prayer should be like between you and the Chief. When you pray, no matter how crowded the room, no matter who’s listening, enter into that secret place where you can have a one-on-one conversation with the hidden God and with him alone.
If this is a problem for you, and you need to pray in your closet so you won’t be tempted to impress people with your prayers, then go pray in your closet. That way your motive couldn’t possibly be to gain human approval.
I think it’s really important to be precise here in our understanding. Jesus is not saying that you’ve done something wrong if people hear your prayer. He’s not even saying that it’s wrong if people are impressed by your prayer. What he’s saying is that it is wrong to pray for the purpose of impressing people. It’s not an issue of who knows about it or what they think about it. It’s all about your motive. Why did you do it? For people? Or for God?
A lot of times people are afraid to pray out loud in front of someone else. Probably some of you feel that way. It’s OK to pray to God in private when no one else can hear. But you feel uncomfortable praying in front of other people. If you feel like that, I know it’s hard, but I’d like to suggest something. Ignore all those people. It doesn’t matter what they think. Just express to God your real thoughts in your own words and in your own way. Be yourself. God already knows you and he knows your thoughts and he loves you, so just talk to him and don’t worry about anyone who might be listening. It’s none of their business.
And by the way, if you’re one of those people who think that it is your business, cut it out! God didn’t appoint you to be the prayer sheriff.
You know, as a pastor, I’ve had occasion to say a lot of prayers in front of other people, and I’ve had people evaluate them and find them wanting. I’ve had people say, “He shouldn’t pray like that. He should have added this or left out that.” And I just want to say to them, “Uh, excuse me, but I wasn’t talking to you.” Because when we pray we aren’t talking to each other. We’re talking to God in front of each other.
You know, I admit that it’s hard sometimes for me to keep my focus on God when I’m praying. When I pray in the worship service, I want people to have a meaningful worship experience. When I pray with people in a crisis, I want them to feel God’s comfort. But every time I pray, I try to remind myself that I’m not talking to people. I’m talking to God.
And I find that I have to remind myself every time I pray. Otherwise I end up talking to people. Does that happen to you, too? Bring down the dome of silence. Every time. And then you’ll be praying for God instead of praying for men.
The reason it’s so important to guard our motives in prayer is because the reason WHY we pray will determine the outcome. Jesus urges us to pray in secret, so that our motives will be completely pure. And
Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Those who pray from pure motives will be rewarded by God.
Just what is this reward? What is the reward of prayer? I think that the reward he’s talking about is that God will hear your prayer and answer it.
The word “reward” is used elsewhere for “paying back a debt.” That’s the way the Bible describes it. If you pray to God with a pure motive, not for how it will look, but because you love God and want to honor him and obey him, then God will pay you back. That is, he will answer you.
I think it’s important to remember that the answer God gives us may not always be the answer we want. But God promises that when we pray to him—not pray so others will applaud—but when we really pray TO him, then he will answer our prayers by giving us whatever answer is the very best for us. Check out this verse:
Psalm 145:18-19 God’s there, listening for all who pray, for all who pray and mean it. He does what’s best for those who fear him—hears them call out, and saves them.
Notice that this verse is talking about those who really mean it when they pray. In other words, they really are talking to God and not to men. And God knows the difference.
1 Chronicles 28:9 God examines every heart and sees through every motive. If you seek him, he’ll make sure you find him. (The Message)
If you’re seeking human approval, you will find it. But look at this verse. If you are really seeking God, then you will find him. That’s the reward of secret prayer.
1 John 5:14-15 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
The one who prays to God will be rewarded. He will be heard. He will be answered. But that reward is only for those who pray with a pure motive.
Now we can see the complete contrast between ostentatious prayer and secret prayer:
There’s one more thing Jesus adds about prayer:
 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
Many ancient religions had the idea that someone could persuade the gods to act if they just said the magic words over and over again. The word “babbling” means “to say ‘batta, batta, batta”. Batta is just a meaningless phrase. It’s kind of like a rain dance—just hit on the right magic formula and keep repeating it until you get results.
But that’s not just an ancient problem. Sometimes people today treat prayer exactly the same way. Say a “Hail Mary” and catch a fish. Keep saying “Our Father’s” and God will protect you. Even in our circles, prayer can become rote and meaningless, just a bunch of magic words we say to try to get God’s attention, to get our desires answered.
And it’s not just the words. Everything we do on a regular basis is in danger of becoming rote and meaningless.
We say, “Let’s pray.” and everyone closes their eyes and bows their head. Why is that? Is it because there’s some verse in the Bible that says, “Here’s how you pray” with a little diagram next to it? (There isn’t.) Or is it because your mother said, “Bow your head, fold your hands and close your eyes”? Where did Mom learn the “right way” to pray? Probably from her mother, and so on, and so on. I suppose way back originally, bowing your head to pray was done as a sign of respect. I don’t know where folding the hands and closing the eyes came from unless it was just to keep the kids from hitting each other during prayer. Kneeling is big in some churches. But a lot of those traditions have become so rote that they have lost all meaning.
You know what? In the Bible there are examples of people praying not just while they’re kneeling but while they’re standing or sitting. And sometimes lying flat on their faces on the ground or the floor. There are no verses that talk about folding your hands, but several that talk about people lifting their hands toward the sky. There are no verses that talk about people closing their eyes to pray, but several that talk about people looking up toward heaven to pray. And yet the habits are so engrained in us and so meaningless that we don’t usually even think about it at all!
One time I was speaking at a high school group and I said to the kids, “Before we begin, let’s lift our eyes and our hands to heaven and pray.” You know what they did? Every single person in the room closed their eyes and bowed their head. Why? Because we don’t even think about it. It’s meaningless. We hear the word “pray” and we immediately enter “the prayer mode”. We even have code words to signal the beginning and the end of “prayer mode”. Try it. Say, “Dear Heavenly Father” and watch everyone close their eyes. That’s “prayer mode”. Or try ending a prayer without saying the code word “Amen”. Everyone still have their heads bowed? Prayer mode.
Look, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with kneeling, bowing, closing your eyes, folding your hands, or saying “Amen” at the end of your prayers. What I am saying is that many of those things we do by rote without any meaning, without any sincerity. We don’t take the time to stop and THINK about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But that is exactly what prayer is supposed to be: intentional, thoughtful, meaningful words and actions directed toward God.
Does prayer prayed at church count more? Is prayer every day more effective than prayer once a week? Does a one-hour prayer work better than a five-minute prayer? Real prayer—kingdom prayer—is not about posture, or location, or frequency, or eloquence, or using the proper words. It’s about sincerity. It’s about meaning. It’s talking to God as if you really were talking to God because you ARE talking to God.
So don’t worry about the formulas. Just express yourself.
 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Sometimes people wonder, “If God already knows what I need, then why should I tell him about it in prayer?” I think the answer is that even though God doesn’t need us to tell him, we need us to tell him. When we talk to God, it reminds us that we depend on God and it demonstrates that we trust him. And we need that. We don’t need to wake God up or get his attention. He never sleeps and he’s already watching us. All we need to do is talk to him, honestly and sincerely.
Once again, Jesus isn’t saying that there’s anything wrong with repeating yourself in prayer. The Bible records one time when Jesus prayed the same thing three times in a row. And he once told a story about a persistent widow to teach us that we should keep praying for something and never give up.
The point is that prayer should not be automatic or a mindless tradition. It should be filled with meaning and significance. We should pray as if we were actually talking to God, because we are. That’s the kind of prayer that God appreciates and God answers.
God wants you to pray—not because he needs to know what you want or what you think. It’s because praying to God is an act of worship. And that’s why it’s so important that you pray with the right motive. You can say the longest, most eloquent prayer for the wrong reasons—so that people will praise you—but then that’s all you get—people’s praise. On the other hand, the shortest, most simplistic prayer, offered sincerely and offered only because you want to honor and obey God—that prayer will bring God’s reward. The question is not just, “Are you praying? The important question is, “Why are you praying?”
We’re going to talk about prayer some more next week, so I encourage you to come back. But before we go, let’s lift our eyes and our hands toward heaven and pray. And by the way, you’re welcome to listen, but what I’m about to say, I’m not saying to you. Let’s all direct our thoughts to the Lord.
Luke 6:12 (NIV) One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
Mark 14:39 (NIV) Once more he went away and prayed the same thing.
Matthew 26:44 (NIV) So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Mark 1:35 (NIV) 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.
Luke 9:18 (NIV) Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, Who do the crowds say I am?
Luke 5:16 (NIV) But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
Luke 22:44 (NIV) And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 (NIV) pray continually;
Ephesians 6:18 (NIV) And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
Romans 8:26 (NIV) In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.
Luke 18:1-8 (NIV) Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.  He said: In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men.  And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'  For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men,  yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'  And the Lord said, Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
1 Peter 4:7 (NIV) The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.
Luke 6:28 (NIV) bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
Luke 22:40 (NIV) On reaching the place, he said to them, Pray that you will not fall into temptation.
Acts 26:29 (NIV) Paul replied, Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.
Luke 21:36 (NIV) Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.
Romans 15:31 (NIV) Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there,
2 Thessalonians 3:2 (NIV) And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith.
1 Timothy 5:5 (NIV) The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.
Ephesians 1:17-18 (NIV) I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
Ephesians 3:16-17 (NIV) I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,
Colossians 1:9-10 (NIV) For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.  And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,
2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 (NIV) With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.  We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 6:19-20 (NIV) Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel,  for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
2 Thessalonians 3:1 (NIV) Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.
Philemon 1:6 (NIV) I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.
Colossians 4:3-4 (NIV) And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.  Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
James 5:13 (NIV) Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.
James 5:14-16 (NIV) Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
1 John 5:16 (NIV) If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that.
James 5:16 (NIV) Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Acts 8:22 (NIV) Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.
Jude 1:20 (NIV) But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.
In the Bible people pray prostrate (Num 16:22; Josh 5:14; Dan 8:17; Matt 26:39; Rev 11:16), kneeling (2 Chronicles 6:13; Dan 6:10; Luke 22:41, Acts 7:60; 9:40; 20:36; 21:5), sitting (2Sam 7:18), and standing (1Sam 1:26; Mark 11:25; Luke 18:11, 13).
Numbers 16:22 (NIV) But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, O God, God of the spirits of all mankind, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?
Joshua 5:14 (NIV) Neither, he replied, but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come. Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, What message does my Lord have for his servant?
Daniel 8:17 (NIV) As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. Son of man, he said to me, understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.
Matthew 26:39 (NIV) Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.
Revelation 11:16 (NIV) And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God,
2 Chronicles 6:13 (NIV) Now he had made a bronze platform, five cubits long, five cubits wide and three cubits high, and had placed it in the center of the outer court. He stood on the platform and then knelt down before the whole assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven.
Daniel 6:10 (NIV) Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.
Luke 22:41 (NIV) He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed,
Acts 7:60 (NIV) Then he fell on his knees and cried out, Lord, do not hold this sin against them. When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Acts 9:40 (NIV) Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, Tabitha, get up. She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.
Acts 20:36 (NIV) When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed.
Acts 21:5 (NIV) But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.
2 Samuel 7:18 (NIV) Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and he said: Who am I, O Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?
1 Samuel 1:26 (NIV) and she said to him, As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD.
Mark 11:25 (NIV) And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
Luke 18:11 (NIV) The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.
Luke 18:13 (NIV) But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
1 Copyright © 2004 by Lewis B. Bell III. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the Kingdom Worship series delivered by Chip Bell at Fellowship Bible Church Arapaho in Dallas, TX on August 15, 2004. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with credit.