Summary: Jesus taught us how to pray and how to fast. But how does what He taught resonate with you? Jesus described praying in secret and not using wordy prayers to get God’s attention.
In my last post, I addressed how to give to the needy according to Jesus’s teaching. In this post, I want to talk about prayer and fasting the way Jesus did.
I have written extensively on the subjects of prayer and fasting. You may especially like an earlier post in this Conformed to Christ spiritual formation category on Praying the Lord’s Prayer. I want to approach this post differently.
Prayer and fasting are not a uniquely or exclusively Christian practice. Most people of any kind of religion pray, and many of them fast. But they pray and fast for different reasons. I want to highlight our attitude and purpose in prayer and fasting.
What are our motives for praying and fasting? Do we pray to look spiritual, to get things from God, or to try to control Him? Do we fast to get God’s attention, force His will, or look more pious? Is all fasting spiritually beneficial? Let’s get started.
Praying in Secret (Matthew 6:5-6)
Jesus begins His teaching on prayer the same way he talked about giving to the needy. He does not say, “If you pray…” but “When you pray…” Prayer is not an option for the disciple of Jesus. Jesus expects us to pray. This must be the beginning of our discussion.
I have other posts for types of prayer, prayer mechanics, and other details about the practice of prayer. But if, like most Christians in America, you do not pray for more than meals, or pray for no more than five minutes a day, we have missed the point of being conformed to Christ.
When we realize the power of prayer and the privilege of bowing before Jesus in humility and confidence, and speaking to the Master of the Universe as our Friend, Jesus’s expectation will not become our motivation. As Paul said, we should be continually prayer throughout our day (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I urge you, if you did not pray more of this, or even don’t pray this much, please plan on how you can pray more.
Why do you pray? We should pray to connect with Jesus. Prayer is direct communication between Jesus’ disciples and Him. We have the privilege of speaking to our Creator and Lord. So many religions fall short of personal communication with their god. We know the one true God, and we can come before Him any time, and He hears us.
Jesus addresses our attitude in prayer. We cannot pray as hypocrites. We don’t pray in public, to gain brownie points on our spirituality. The Pharisees did that. They strategically placed themselves in public arenas so people could hear their prayers. They prayed to show spiritual superiority to those who listened to their prayers.
Their motive was to have their egos stroked by “less foliar” individuals listening in because they wanted people to listen in on their prayers. These prayers are more proclamations and monologues in true prayer, one-on-one communication with God. We must not make this mistake. Jesus says that you have received their reward already, that people have heard them instead of God.
If you pray for people to hear you, your reward will be their praise rather than God’s open ear. You won’t get positive responses to your requests. Public prayers like this are more about you than Him. You will get what you seek, the praise of others and the absence of the power of prayer or the intimacy of a one-on-one relationship with God.
Instead, Jesus teaches us to pray in private. We should go into our room, our prayer closet, and pray to our Father in heaven. You cannot allow the temptation for others to admire you for your spirituality or flowery prayers if they can’t hear you. Your prayers are no longer for them. They are for Jesus. The interesting phrasing Jesus uses here of your Father who is in secret, and you pray in secret away from the public stresses the intimate and private nature of prayer.
When you choose to privately pray to God secret, and your motives are right before Him, He rewards your prayers, answering you with positive responses. When we get our attitude and motives right about prayer, God blesses us. Our prayers are truly to Him and no one else. Our hearts are pure before Him. And it pleases Him to hear from His children without a third party.
Does that mean we should never pray in public? We pray in church, sometimes chosen by the pastor to pray for the congregation or specific needs brought by the congregation. What about written prayers we read publicly? Some people only pray memorized prayers. William Seymour, one of the founders of twentieth century Pentecostalism on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, preached his sermon, and when prayer began, he put his head inside the pulpit. Must we do that?
It’s not about whether you pray in public or in secret. Jesus is getting out your motive for praying. You can pray for others and even be a blessing to others by reading a prayer. The key is your attitude and motivation. Are you praying to be heard by God or by others?
Wordy Prayers (Matthew 6:7-8)
Similarly, Jesus raises a second issue about prayer. Do we pray many words, thinking that God hears us more than he hears others if we talk more? We should not pray to hear our own voices. Once again, this is the wrong motive for praying. Do not monopolize the conversation. As the saying goes, “If your mouth is open, your ears are closed.”
When I pray, I leave spots of silence, especially after asking Jesus a question. I want to hear what He has to say. I am learning to hear His voice. What does God’s voice sound like? How does he speak to His servants? If we talk more than we listen, we will never find out. Hopefully, you do not talk so much that if you left enough time for God to speak, and He did, it was surprise you.
When I took public speaking and sermon classes, my teachers encouraged us students to cut out every filler word, sound, and phrase we used. Many of us have popular ways to fill the silence in our speech. We don’t even realize we do it. A lot of us use similar words when we pray. I’m not picking on anyone. I do it too.
We repeat our address to God and Jesus every sentence or other sentence. We repeat our requests. Repetitious prayer is not necessary. We need not refer to God or Jesus after every sentence. He knows we are talking to Him. Imagine how your friend would Phyllis you said their name after every sentence. They may become annoyed with you. I’m not saying God gets annoyed with us if we repeat His name too often in our prayers. But do we think about what we’re saying when we pray?
We did not need to use words at all. You can pray without speaking, and God still knows your heart and your prayer. Sometimes when I’m in public, I pray in my heart and with my mind, not with my mouth. The moment you address God, He is listening. You don’t need many words. He listens because you are His child. He knows what we need. But He wants to hear from us. Rest assured, you have His undivided attention the moment you call on Him.
May our prayers be full of substance instead of fluff. We must recognize God’s presence as we call on Him. He is with us, listening to us, and ready to act on our behalf. We must not waste our communication with our Lord. We do ourselves and God a disservice when we get wordy or use it as a public theater to show our spirituality and self-righteousness instead of talking to God.
Think about how you communicate with God in prayer. Is it about you or Him? Do you want to speak with God or have everyone recognize your pious behavior? Who do you want to give you your reward?
This post could only cover part of Jesus’s teaching on prayer and fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. My next post will conclude these two subjects.