Sunday, September 9, 2018

When You Pray, Don’t …

We’re back again to listen to Jesus’ teaching about prayer. In teaching about this He obviously thought that there were things about prayer that His disciples didn’t know and needed to know. I think that it’s fair to say that we are in the same boat. There are things about prayer that we don’t know and need to know. So, let me encourage you to ponder Jesus’ words about prayer so that your own prayer lives will continue to develop. Much good comes from those who have a good grasp on what they are doing when it comes to discussing life with the Father.

As the title of the sermon makes clear, what we are going to look at this morning are some words from Jesus about how not to pray. Remember, there is a right way to pray and a wrong way. It is as we understand what to avoid that we will have a better idea about what to pursue.

Listen to Jesus.

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Where shall we start? How about taking a look at what Jesus means by ‘empty phrases’? This isn’t very difficult. Jesus is talking about saying words but not actually meaning anything.

Did you notice that Jesus isn’t making any comparison with Jewish hypocrites as He did in the comments that we looked at last week? Here, He’s taking a look at what Gentile pagans do. Evidently, they thought that they could pester their gods into action by their repetition, sort of like a spoiled toddler who won’t stop screaming until he gets what he wants. While Jesus identifies this as a Gentile problem, He evidently thought that His very Jewish disciples needed to be warned about that danger. This is something for them to avoid.

Is this something that we need to be warned about? Can we fall into the habit of offering up prayers that don’t really mean much? It might help if we use different words to describe the kind of prayers that Jesus is warning about. What if we describe this as praying thoughtlessly, saying words but not being very clear about what we mean. When it’s described in this way I do think that it is something that we would do well to be aware of so that we can avoid it.

Let’s get more concrete and consider a hypothetical prayer.  ‘Dear God, please bless George. He is having such a hard time with life. He’s been so sick and he’s lost his job. Please care for him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.’ Let’s examine this prayer.

First, there’s this. I think that a Christian has all sorts of ways that he can address God. So, starting with ‘Dear God’ in this prayer is fine - as long as those words match the feelings that he has for God - that is, as long as this Christian is thinking of God as very dear to him.

Consider how the psalmists address God at the beginning of some of their prayers.

O Yahweh, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth! Psalms 94:1

O Yahweh, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you. Psalms 88:1

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. Psalms 80:1

The psalmists address God with a little detail. And if I were to read the rest of those Psalms you’d see that the way that they address God is related to what they are praying about.

I’m not saying that you have to get fancier in your prayers. No, but it is important to think about how you address Him. Avoid empty phrases.

Now, let’s consider the body of that prayer for George. He is having a hard time since he is sick and unemployed. But notice the words that were used: bless and care for. I think that these qualify as an empty phrase. I say that because it really isn’t clear what the person praying this prayer wants God to do. What particular blessing should God give to George? How exactly should He care for George?

Earlier this week, I was talking with my daughter, Adiel. She mentioned that she would be taking Zoe, her youngest, to an orthodontist to have some gizmo put into her mouth for the next six months. Zoe, who is nine, was feeling a little scared. So, I told Adiel to tell Zoe that I would be praying for her. Now, what did I pray? I didn’t ask God to bless and care for Zoe. First, I asked God to act so that she wouldn’t be overwhelmed by her fear. But I also prayed that she would see God at work in this experience and that she might come to understand that sometimes Christians learn important things through painful experiences.

So, let’s go back to George. What might we ask God to do for him? Well, what are his needs? His needs go deeper than sickness and unemployment. So, along with praying for healing and a job, we can pray that he would not lose hope. Isn’t that a temptation for any of us when life gets hard? We can also ask God to help him understand that Christians sometimes learn important things through painful experiences and that he would, in fact, learn some important things about following Jesus because of what he is suffering.

Now, all those things might be covered by ‘bless and care for’. But I think that we would do well to spell them out. We need to be clear about what it is that we actually want God to do. This will help us to avoid falling into using empty phrases.

One more example of an empty phrase. How did that prayer for George end? ‘In Jesus’ name’. Now, that can’t be bad, can it? Well, actually it depends. Jesus did teach that we are to pray in His name. But what did He mean? Is Jesus saying that if we end our prayers with those three words that it’s all good, that our prayers will be granted? Doesn’t that sound like magic?

What does it mean to do something in someone’s name? Listen to what King Ahasuerus said to Esther and Mordecai.

But you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.” Esther 8.8

The king is talking about his authority. He is giving Esther and Mordecai permission to assert his authority when they write decrees about what is to happen to the Jews.

Similarly, Jesus was talking about His authority when He teaches us to pray in His name. Jesus has authority with the Father. We are to address the Father through Jesus, our High Priest before the Father. In this we are appealing to the authority that Jesus has. This guarantees that the Father will hear our prayers.

So, you can say those three words at the end of your prayers if you want. That’s fine. But be sure that you know what you’re saying. Don’t let them become an empty phrase.

Now, personally when I end my prayers with a closing phrase, I tend to say something like, ‘Through Christ, my Lord’. In doing this, I’m expressing my faith in the part of the Gospel that teaches that it’s only because of what Jesus does on my behalf that my prayers are even heard by the Father. It is also a reminder to me of this fact.

So, here’s the main point of what Jesus is teaching. Don’t use empty phrases. Instead, pray thoughtfully. Those who pray using empty phrases are actually just going through the motions without really thinking about what they are doing. Don’t become like them. Don’t make prayer some empty religious ritual. Think about what you’re going to say to God, and then tell Him. One benefit of this is that you have a greater sense of actually talking to someone, saying some things that you think are important for God to hear. Your prayers become more real. Your God becomes more real.

Now, Jesus gives a reason why we shouldn’t pray like the pagans.

Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:8

Now, I’m guessing that for many of you that prompts a question. ‘If God already knows what I need, why do I need to pray and ask Him for it?’

I think that that is a good question. And it gives opportunity to exercise some thinking.

Jesus is quite clear here that we don’t pray for God’s benefit. He already knows our needs before we ask. So, if it isn’t for His benefit, for whose benefit are we to pray and mention our needs? And I think that the only other option is obvious. We mention our needs to God for our benefit. What else could it be? It’s just a matter of looking at the words and asking questions and then working at getting some answers.

Let’s take that apart. What happens when you avoid empty phrases and, instead, pray thoughtful prayers about your needs? One thing that happens is that you see your needs more clearly, more deeply. You see how weak you are when it comes to these needs. You see that the only way that those needs can be met is if your very kind and caring Father deals with them. Now, remember, this is if you avoid the pitfall of empty phrases, and you have thought about what exactly it is that you want your God to do. When you pray in this way you are no longer just doing some religious thing. You are discussing life with your Father. Remember that the point of prayer is for us to get more of God. Enjoying Him as a real Father is getting more of Him. And presenting our needs to Him, in a meaningful way, will have that result.

Thinking about how to pray about your needs can also help you to see them differently. As you look at them in the context of God’s big plan to restore all things, you can view them, and the rest of your life, in a different light. You get to ask yourself, ‘Why do I want God to meet this need in this way?’ It’s a sad fact that many prayers that are offered up are simply appeals for an easier life, a more comfortable life. Something bad looms on the horizon. And what do so many pray? ‘Don’t let that happen to me!’ But isn’t God’s plan to save the world advanced by bad things happening to His people? Didn’t Jesus suffer and die on a cross?

Being thoughtful about how God can meet your needs can also be a challenge to your faith.

I’m reading through 1 Kings. One day this week, I read about how the son of Elijah’s hostess died. And, as you can imagine, she was distraught. Her son is dead. She is hopeless.

What did Elijah do? He took the boy and prayed over him. He asked God to raise him up. God heard and the boy was revived.

This is what struck me as I thought about that. It’s too easy for me to be like the mother. Something bad has happened. End of story. But Elijah had the faith to pray to change what happened. He made a very large request of God. And God granted it. That challenged me. Are there needs that I have, needs that you have, that I could pray about more boldly and with greater expectations of God? I think so. All that is needed is a faith that believes His promises. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you think about your prayers.

Now, in light of all of this, what are you to do? Here are a couple of suggestions. First, evaluate your prayers. How are you doing at avoiding empty phrases? Do you pray thoughtfully? It may sound odd, but this is something to pray about. Ask the Father to give you the ability to see accurately how you are doing.

Here is something that I do so that my prayers are thoughtful. I offer it as something for you to consider. I include written prayers in my daily prayer time. Some of these are prayers that come from Scripture, some were written by other people and some are written by me. I know that some react to the idea of praying written prayers. They are concerned that these prayers can also become empty phrases, and, of course, they can. However, here are some things to bear in mind. The Lord’s Prayer is a written prayer. It can become a bunch of empty phrases. But it can also become a very powerful prayer. Some of the Psalms are written prayers. I use something from a Psalm as a prayer to God. I also use a prayer of praise, a doxology, from the book of Revelation.

The written prayers that I use work for me because they are thoughtful prayers. They say things that I want to pray, and they say those things really well. On top of that, they cause me to regularly pray about certain areas that I want to be sure to include in my prayers.

Can these become empty phrases? Sure. But so can unwritten prayers. The issue isn’t whether a prayer is written or not. It’s about whether you mean what you are praying.

Last thought. The main idea of today’s sermon matches a theme in another area that I have been stressing lately. I have urged you to read the Bible thoughtfully. Look at the words. Ask questions. Work to find some answers. Meditation. I would also like to urge you to pray thoughtfully. What exactly do you want to say to God, and why do you want to say it? We are all influenced by a culture that is too busy and too much in a rush to be thoughtful about much. And that results in superficial lives. But we can be different. We can lead lives that really make a dent in our world. But to do that we need to be thoughtful Christians. It is my great desire that we all would make much progress toward that goal.