Too many Christians pray out loud in ways that are downright silly. We use fancy words. We repeat ourselves like idiots. Jesus told us not to do that. He taught us to pray simply and directly.
Next week, I’ll preach a real sermon again. This week we did some work-shopping in church about sermon from last time. So for the blog, I’ll post some thoughts I’ve been chewing on lately.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately, thinking about how people pray publicly. It’s a bad habit I have. What strikes is me is how common it is for Christians to ignore what Jesus said about public prayer. And the worst offenders are usually the “very holy and mature” believers. This often makes other Christians feel unworthy and second class, because they can’t pray like these believers who really know how to “pray up a storm.”
I recently took a Sunday off and attended a different church. They had a guest speaker who was very inspiring and entertaining. Afterwards, he invited people up for prayer and ministry. He had them stand in a group, and he prayed over them through the microphone. He probably prayed for five or ten minutes. His prayer was powerful – at least externally. His prayer was full of emotion. His prayer was full of words. His prayer wore me out, and I wasn’t even one of the people who went up for ministry.
I am continually struck by the widespread ignorance among “mature” Christians concerning Jesus’ own words about prayer, and about Jesus’ own actions when it came to bringing healing and deliverance.
Here’s what Jesus said:
5 “And when you pray, 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. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, 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.
7 “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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8. Followed by the Lord’s Prayer)
Let me tell you, I’ve heard a lot of people pray in a way that seems aimed at showing others that they are good at it. I’ve heard an awful lot of empty phrases and extra words heaped up over the years. I have several thoughts about this.
First, I wonder this: do these people even know that Jesus said these things? These words of Jesus come from one of the best known portions of scripture: The Sermon on the Mount. Specifically, Jesus spoke them right before “the Lord’s prayer” in Matthew chapter six. So these people who pray such impressive sounding prayers may actually be very young in the faith and even ignorant of the bible. If you hear someone praying in a way that seems designed to impress others, you should understand, that is not the prayer of a mature believer. If you hear someone heaping up words and fine-sounding phrases, that person still has a lot of growing to do. Don’t be intimidated by them. PLEASE, don’t feel like you have to copy them.
Now, I have no doubt that some of these professional-level creators of empty phrases know what Jesus said. If so, then they are being disobedient. They are like Moses, who didn’t believe it was enough to simply speak to the rock, but also had to put on a show, striking the rock twice and acting out in front of the Israelites (Numbers 20:1-12). Jesus said, do not be like them. Do not be like the people who think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like the people who heap up empty phrases when they pray. And yet so many Christians – even leaders of churches and ministries – are exactly like this when they pray.
Another question is raised in my mind. What kind of relationship do these folks have with Jesus that they talk to him in this way? Jesus invites us into an intimate, real, loving daily relationship with himself. He came explicitly to remove the barriers between us and God. Yet when people heap up these empty phrases and pray impressively in front of others, it doesn’t sound like they are particularly close to him. I have never, not even when I was very young, gone to my human father and spoken like this:
“Father, Oh Father who gave birth to me; Father you have provided for me, father; Father, I just want you, father, to reach out, father, and touch me father, and just give me a peanut butter sandwich. Because, father, you are the king of peanut butter sandwiches. As far as I know, you invented peanut butter. As far as I know, you invented bread. You are the one who feeds me, you are the one who makes the money, and then you take the money and deposit it in the bank, O father, because you are wise. And then father, you take your debit card, and you are the one who goes to the store, you are the one who buys the bread and the peanut butter. You might buy Jiffy, or Peter Pan or even the generic store brand father, but you are the one who does it. And then you take it home in our 2005 Buick, father, because in your wisdom, that is the car you chose to purchase. And then father, you are the one who takes the bread, and the knife and the peanut butter and creates the sandwich, all for me. Even though I don’t deserve it father, because I failed to clean my room this morning. From my birth you have been giving me these delicious sandwiches, father, and I want you now father, to give me another one. Peanut Butter. Oh I ask you for peanut butter. I yearn for peanut butter, father. Peanut butter; peanut butter; peanut butter.”
If I did speak to my earthly father in this way, what would it say about the kind of relationship I have with him? Unless I was joking around with him, it would reveal that our relationship is strange and twisted; almost certainly unhealthy. This kind of talk shows that I
don’t interact at a very intimate level with my father. In fact, it strongly suggests that I am very uncomfortable relating to him. I am speaking to him in a way that I would never use to speak to a close friend. It unveils a belief that I think I must use a lot of words and a lot of inane flattery to get him to do what almost any other father would do if his child simply said, “Dad, could you make me a peanut butter sandwich?” Jesus said much the same thing:
11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12).
These long, repetitive, wordy prayers are either mere show for others, or they reveal a distant, impoverished relationship with God that is completely unlike the one that Jesus came to give us.
Now, I have had conversations with people who make the point that sometimes we are praying not just to God for ourselves, but to God on behalf of others and in front of others. Therefore, the way we pray out loud can be used to encourage those around us. I agree with this entirely. Jesus prayed out loud to encourage his followers in their faith. Here is one example:
“Father, I thank You that You heard Me. 42 I know that You always hear Me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so they may believe You sent Me.” 43 After He said this, He shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! ”
This doesn’t sound much like most of the public prayers I hear in churches and prayer meetings. It’s simple. “Father, I am praying this out loud so others can hear and believe that you are working through my prayer.” Then the ministry time, the altar call for all who need a resurrection in their life. It consists of three words. Three.
You see, if we are praying out loud to encourage others to put their trust in Jesus and to get closer to him, we should consider if our words actually do that or not. A long prayer with a lot of empty and fine sounding phrases – what does that communicate to those who listen? I think it gives listeners these kinds of ideas:
Prayer is a skill. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of repetition. We can’t just ask for what we need – we must set it in a context, we must use holy words and phrases, we must prove our earnestness by making it long. We need to keep talking to make God show up and do something.
In fact, Jesus didn’t pray that way, and he didn’t teach us to pray that way either. To repeat:
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
So if you are praying out loud to benefit others (which I agree is a good thing) remember – it does NOT benefit others if you are praying like a pagan with a lot of fancy words and fine phrases. It doesn’t benefit others to make prayer sound like a professional-level skill.
We often make the same mistakes in prayer and altar ministry. I am continually struck by the fact that when I offer to pray for others, either God will show up, or he won’t. For example, I’ve prayed for many people to receive the gift of tongues. Many times, the Lord has given the person I’m praying for that gift. Sometimes, he has not given it. Whether it happens or not, I always pray basically the same prayer: “Lord, please give (name) the gift of tongues right now. Amen.” Our Father knows if the person needs the gift or not. I don’t have to stand there thinking up words to say while God makes up his mind. If he wants to do it, he does. If he doesn’t, my long winded prayers won’t change his mind.
Look at the way Jesus did ministry:
“Lazarus, come out.” (resurrection ministry)
“Get up and walk” (healing ministry)
“Little girl, get up” (resurrection ministry)
“Thank you father for the food. Please bless it” (providence ministry for five thousand)
“Come out of him,” (deliverance ministry)
“Receive the Holy Spirit (baptism in the Holy Spirit)
In these examples, Jesus uses an average of eight words. I have to admit, I made up the prayer about the feeding of the five thousand – it could have been a lot longer. Or a lot shorter. But the others are verbatim quotes from the gospels. Jesus is simple and direct.
You see, I think we, like Moses, are afraid to leave it that simple. If we keep talking, maybe God will show up just to make us quit. Or, if we keep talking, maybe we can cover up the fact that no one is getting healed tonight.
Thus, our ministry times often reflect a confusing contradictory message. The overall gist of it goes like this: “God has a gift he wants to give you now. He wants to give it to you, so come up to receive it. Now, once you come up to receive it you can’t just receive it. We have to work hard and pray long so that you can get it.”
Jesus never did ministry that way. The disciples after Pentecost never did ministry that way. And the fact that so many churches do engage in ministry that way sends the wrong message to people about prayer and about Jesus himself.
I think two of the biggest causes for this kind of praying and ministry are fear and self-reliance. If we keep it short and simple, will God really do it? Maybe if we pray long and hard, we can kind of motivate God to do what we ask. We are afraid to simply say, “Jesus come and do this please,” because what if he doesn’t? The reason that scares us is because we have forgotten that this is all about him, not us. We will end up looking silly if we speak less than fifteen words during our ministry time and nothing happens. But it isn’t supposed to be about how we look. It is supposed to be about what Jesus wants to do.
And so we buy into the idea that a longer, better-sounding prayer is in fact a better prayer. Because that gives us a measure of control. We start to believe we can make it happen if only we pray correctly. We want to believe that we can do something to make God show up. Because doing something is easier than waiting quietly in faith.
Most of the people I know who pray and do ministry with heaps of empty words are good-hearted people. I believe that many of them have a much closer relationship with Jesus than their prayers would lead you to suspect. But I think they are sincerely misled in this matter. Maybe you have been too. It isn’t complicated. Jesus made it quite clear in his teachings and in his examples: Keep it short and simple and trust God to do what you are asking.