Jesus Taught Us How to Pray
by Trisha L. Knaul
What did God tell us about prayer?
If we want to know what God told us about prayer, we must listen to what Jesus—God the Son—told us. There are several passages where Jesus prayed, all of which give us examples of what and how God Himself modeled prayer for us. (We will explore those another time.) However, the gospels also record the times when Jesus actually taught his disciples about prayer. So, what did Jesus teach about prayer?
We find Jesus’ first prayer teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, the longest sermon (or collection of teachings) by Jesus recorded in the Bible. It covers everything from adultery to fasting, from blessings to worry. This sermon also contains the longest recorded teaching on prayer. In the very middle of his sermon, Jesus taught the crowd:
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 others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8)
We are expected to pray.
Jesus introduced his teaching on prayer by saying, “when you pray.” When, not if. We are expected to pray. It is not an option for those who follow Jesus Christ. Jesus did not command us to pray; he expected us to be praying. This passage is not a call to prayer. It is instruction (for those who should already be praying) on how to effectively pray.
We are to be real when we pray.
Jesus continued with a warning that we are “not to be like the hypocrites.” The Greek word for hypocrite was the same word used for an actor on a stage. A hypocrite was someone who played a part for the benefit of those watching—what others saw was not who they really were. The rewards for an actor were self-satisfaction and recognition.
Jesus told his followers not to pray in a way that sought or brought recognition for themselves. People who pray in such a way, will receive the same recognition as an actor—self-satisfaction and recognition. Sadly, that is the only reward they will receive. Although public prayer should be done, praying for the praise of men instead of for the glory of God results in nothing but the puffing up of our own pride. The only reward that prayer will receive is the momentary praise of men. We must be ever vigilant of the temptation to shift our focus from God to ourselves when we pray, especially in a group setting.
Prayer is between you and God–private.
How should we pray, then? “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Unlike the hypocrite who is seeking recognition, we are to seek God. Most prayer should be between us and God alone—private. While I don’t want to minimize the importance of praying with others, it needs to be stressed that God wants alone time with us. Our prayers should always be about God, not ourselves.
Once we approach God with the right attitude, “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Seek God, not accolades from others. The best way to do that is to pray where others cannot see us. When we approach God in this way, God will reward us.
Right prayers are rewarded.
What will that reward be? When Jesus said that the hypocrite only receives the reward of men’s praise, the Greek word for reward is misthos. It is a reward “that appropriately compensates a particular decision (action).” (https://biblehub.com/greek/3408.htm) In other words, they will get what’s coming to them, i.e. nothing but the momentary praise of men.
By contrast, when Jesus told us that God will reward the ones who pray in secret, the word for reward is apodidómi which means “to return…, in relation to the source of the giving back.” (https://biblehub.com/greek/591.htm) The ones who pray for God (not for men’s praise) will receive in relationship to what they gives. The ones who pray with the right attitude will be rewarded in relationship to the honor given to God—God will honor their prayers as they have honored Him.
God hears our prayers.
Jesus ended this teaching by cautioning us to consider our words carefully when praying. We cannot convince God to listen to us by “babbling like pagans.” God knows what we need (and want) before we even ask. We are to be confident that God hears us. Although there is a time to “not give up” (We will talk about that passage in part 4.), prayers are always to mean something. They are not to be mindless chatter. Prayers that only drone on and on and do not engage the heart and mind of the one praying are just gibberish. The key is personal engagement and relationship with God. He always hears and rewards real, heartfelt prayers offered in humility.
Things to think about:
- How does it make you feel to know that God expects you to be praying?
- If you have ever caught yourself acting when you pray, how did the realization affect you?
- Describe your private place of prayer.
- What rewards have you experienced through prayer?
- Do you find comfort in the thought that you don’t need to use a lot of words when you pray?
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Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International version®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™