How Not to Pray. Learning from Pharisees and Pagans

How many lips have formed these words since the Lord Jesus first taught them? How many languages have uttered them? How many different people, in how many different circumstances, have bowed their heads and hearts to pray as Jesus famously instructs?

The dying have prayed it. The uneducated have prayed it. The unbelieving and villainous have even prayed it. Children have prayed it. The great and wise have found room for it. Every continent on earth has heard it whispered. Tribes in remote villages and kings in tall palaces have bowed and repeated after the Jewish prophet from Nazareth. Has there been a prayer more prayed; have there been words more often spoken?

“For some of our wandering prayer lives, the best thing for us to learn is how not to pray.”And yet, for as many as have repeated our Master’s teaching on how to pray, how many can repeat what words come directly before them — namely, the ones teaching us how not to pray? How many realize that our Lord’s instruction on prayer is both positive and negative — that it doesn’t simply stand alone but is given in contrast? For some of our wandering prayer lives, the best thing for us to learn is how not to pray like a Pharisee or a pagan.

Prayers of Pharisees

Do you love to be noticed and admired by others when you pray?

Jesus’s first how-not-to aims at the hypocrite, embodied in the Pharisee. When the Pharisee prayed, he wanted not so much to pray as to be seen praying. As a bird in mating season, he sang forth loud, preening look-at-me prayers.

“And when you pray,” Jesus begins, “you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5).

Such a man pours his best zeal and focus and interest into public prayers. He positions himself on street corners or within small groups. What may seem stirring and deeply spiritual to many does not impress the one above who knows their anxious thoughts: Are others looking? Are they impressed?

Jesus shows us an example of such a look-at-me pray-er, who cannot help exalting himself even without an audience.

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:10–12)

In other words, “God, thank you that when you look at me — and when I look at me — we both behold such a pleasing sight! Unlike this man, loathsome to both Gentile and Jew alike, you have made me quite the spectacle. Twice per week my belly aches from fasting. My spice racks withhold not your due!” “Be merciful to me a sinner” lives miles from his mind in the distant town called Justified.

Do you pray to impress others? To build up a spiritual résumé? How is your life of secret prayer? Do you ever stand so tall or shine with such saintly luster as when you know others are watching? You must not be like them, Jesus teaches, for “they have received their reward.” Instead, “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” (Matthew 6:5–6).

Prayers of Pagans

Have you come to the end of your prayers and realized you can’t remember anything you just prayed? You spoke Christian-speak — observed the phrases of prayer, drew near to God with your mouth, and honored him with your lips while your heart was far from him. Prayer on autopilot.

“And when you pray,” Jesus teaches next, “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

The pagans prayed empty mantras, stale platitudes, barren banalities. Prayer for pagans often proved little more than a formula — say these words so many times, and the gods will hear and reply. Just babble invocations in order to awaken your deity from his slumber, and he will eventually bless you. The priests of Baal modeled this in their showdown with Elijah, praying, “O Baal, answer us!” from morning until noon (1 Kings 18:26).

So too with us.

Although we do not pray to stones or wood or the sun, Jesus does not want his disciples praying true words to the true God falsely. Emptily. I don’t know about you, but mealtime prayers can be the first ones vampired of their lifeblood (what does it even mean to “bless this food to our bodies”?). Too many times, my mouth has moved, prayers were spoken — but not really from me. A pious ventriloquism.

Our Lord exposes a hidden insecurity underneath empty-phrased pagan prayers: “They think that they will be heard for their many words.” The pagans are uncertain about the divine heart toward them — so they appease or impress or update the unknowing and unconcerned gods. They try to get their attention, throwing dust at the heavens, desperately wishing for someone to answer.

Such an insecurity resonates with my say-more prayers. Am I really being heard? Prayer can seem less reliable than, say, a text message, which tells me it was delivered. Not so with prayer. I feel as though I pray carrier pigeons — as each flaps away, I hope some will arrive at the destination.

Praying empty phrases with many words, then, can turn into a probability proposition. The more pigeons, the greater the odds God receives the message. Third-times-a-charm mentality. But Jesus allays our rambling fears: “Do not be like them,” he instructs, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Before you approach your Father’s throne, he knows. He knows your needs — his eye has not turned from you. The pagans pray to the unknown god. We pray to a Father.

Prayer for Christians

Jesus introduces “Our Father who art in heaven” with “Pray then like this” (Matthew 6:9). Then connects the instruction on how not to pray with the how-to Lord’s Prayer.

I believe Jesus gives us this prayer, in part, to contrast with the how-not-to errors of the hypocrites and pagans. In his short prayer, Jesus gives us an alternative to the look-at-me prayer of the Pharisee and the say-more prayer of the pagan.

Against hypocrite prayers, he teaches us to pray,

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9–10)

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God in all his glory be seen, not us. Instead of our names being hallowed, our kingdoms coming, our righteousness being seen and praised and admired — or the various ways we ask for these — we want God’s to be imposed and cherished. This prayer, spoken from the heart and not just the mouth, transforms hypocrites to worshipers, deorbiting the heart from revolving around self to God. And when God’s fame is truly our heart’s desire, we will come to love secret prayer.

Against pagan prayers, Jesus adds,

Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:11–13)

Instead of waking a snoring deity, anxious to appease the god we do not truly know, we pray to a heavenly Father. And therefore, instead of seeking to impress or play probability games with the divine ear, we can pray simple, childlike, and even concise prayers to our Father (this prayer totals 57 words in Greek, 38 in Luke’s account), knowing that we have his ear through Jesus Christ. We ask him for the needs we already know he knows about. He is a Father, bidding his sons and daughters come close to tell him all the requests of their hearts.

One of the best ways to pray is to know how not to pray. Instead of praying self-exalting prayers that cry, Look at me! we pray in secret, and we pray for God’s glory to be loved and admired. Instead of praying empty-talk, babbling, insecure prayers, we pray about daily bread and forgiveness, knowing that he knows our needs and has forgiven us in Christ before we ask him.

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