“Not Like The Pagans” Matthew 6:7-8 June 27, 2010
SI: Last Sunday we began a study of the Lord’s Prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is mentioned twice in the New Testament—
here in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount and also in Luke 11.
In Luke, the setting is different. The disciples have been watching Jesus.
They’ve heard him pray, seen him go away and pray—sometimes all night.
They must have noticed the peace and confidence he had in prayer.
So they said: Lord, teach us to pray. Jesus said, When you pray, pray like this:
And he gave them the Lord’s Prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer.
It’s for children in the faith and for the most mature.
INTRO: What is prayer? How do you define it?
D.L. Moody was once in England staying in the home of a Scottish friend.
A young man who had a number of theological questions had come by
to talk to Mr. Moody. He asked the great evangelist:
What is prayer? I don’t know what you mean by it.
Before Moody could answer, they heard a child’s voice in the hall.
It was the ten year old daughter of Moody’s friend.
Her father called her in and said, Jenny, tell these gentlemen, What is prayer?
She didn’t know about the discussion that had been going on,
but as a little Scottish Presbyterian, she knew that question.
And she promptly answered:
“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name
of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.”
And Moody said: Ah! That’s the catechism. Thank God for that catechism.
Maybe you were taught, as I was, to define prayer with the acrostic ACTS.
Adoration. Confession. Thanksgiving. Supplication.
And prayer is certainly all of those things.
Those are good, comprehensive definitions of prayer.
But you know that there are many prayers in the Bible that don’t have all four
elements of the ACTS definition, or the five elements in the Shorter Catechism.
Some prayers are only supplication—just requests, nothing more.
Other prayers in the Bible are only adoration, others only confession.
And some prayers are not any of those things.
There are some prayers in the Psalms that are just complaining to God.
The catechism definition is a good one, as far as giving a list of the different
parts of prayer. But we need a simpler definition so that we know real prayer
no matter what form it might take.
So what is prayer? There is probably no better and simpler definition
than the one given by Thomas a Kempis. Thomas a Kempis was a German monk,
lived in 1300s, and wrote the most famous devotional book of all time,
The Imitation of Christ.
How did this great Christian man define prayer? He said, are you ready?
Prayer is “conversation with God.”
And that’s what all of the best Christian teachers throughout church history
have said about true prayer. They’ve emphasized its conversational character.
John Knox, for example, called prayer “earnest and familiar talking with God.”
Prayer is personal communication like what we have with another person—
especially a person we love and trust.
We talk with each other. We convey our thoughts and feelings.
But what is remarkable about prayer is that the One we are speaking to is
Almighty God. We are speaking to him and he is listening to us.
So anything less than that, or anything else, is not prayer.
You can say religious words, you can get down on your knees and say
what sounds like a prayer—but it is only a true prayer, if in your heart
and mind, you are talking with God himself.
And that brings us to this passage.
Right before the Lord Jesus gives his disciples this model prayer,
what we call the Lord’s Prayer—right before—
he gives them two negatives, two “do not’s.”
I’m going to tell you how to pray, but first do not pray like the hypocrites,
and second, do not pray like the pagans.
Last week we looked at hypocritical prayer.
This morning, we’re going to look at pagan prayer.
Isn’t that a strange warning by Christ? He says to his disciples, to believers,
to us—don’t pray like pagans. That means we can and sometimes do.
We will see again, as we saw last week, that this is not about mechanics.
It’s not about long prayers vs. short prayers.
Or extemporaneous prayers vs. memorized prayers or read prayers.
It’s not even about praying the same prayers or prayer requests over and over.
It might seem like that when you first read Jesus’ words, but it’s not
It’s about the heart.
The Lord is saying: You’re going to be pulled away from true prayer
by two sinful heart tendencies. So before you pray, give yourself a heart check.
Look at these words of Christ under two points:
1. The emptiness of pagan prayer
The satisfaction of true prayer
MP#1 The emptiness of pagan prayer
Jesus says: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans,
for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
“Pagan” or “Gentile” was the Jewish way of saying, people outside the Covenant,
people who don’t know the true God.
Old Testament prophets used it to describe the nations in spiritual darkness.
So what Jesus tells us about pagans is not for us to look down on them
or feel superior to them. If anything, this should move us to sympathy.
But this is for us to examine our own prayer life.
Jesus says: Look around the world at all the pagans who pray
in their own religions to their own gods. How do they pray?
He says: Their prayer is babbling. KJV translates this word “vain repetitions.”
And, he says, they think they will be heard because of “their many words.”
This is the primary characteristic of pagan prayer the world over.
It is the belief that by merely saying the words themselves
or by repeating the same words over and over,
or by performing certain rituals
or maybe by praying very loudly,
that their gods will hear them and perhaps be compelled to answer.
How did the priests of Baal pray on Mt. Carmel?
You can’t say they weren’t sincere. So sincere they cut themselves with knives.
They shouted and carried on all morning to get their god’s attention.
You can’t help but notice how calm and direct Elijah’s prayer was in contrast.
How does a Muslim pray?
He prays at specific times of the day, facing in a specific direction,
saying specific words. He has to do it just right or it doesn’t count.
And if he prays right, then Allah might be inclined to show him mercy.
How does a Hindu pray?
He looks at the hundreds of gods and goddesses and avatars of the Hindu
religion and chooses the one he needs. If he needs success in romance, he picks
one god. If he needs success in business he picks another. Health, another.
And then he carefully performs the rituals specific to that god to get its blessing.
Pagan prayer is not “earnest and familiar talking with God.”
Because when you really talk with a person, when you really share your thoughts
and feelings, when you speak and know that you are heard and understood—
it has nothing to do with being loud or repeating yourself over and over
or emphasizing your points with rituals and dramatic expressions.
In fact, when a person is doing those things,
when he is shouting at you or flattering you or kicking the wall
or just blabbering away you say: Stop! Talk to me.
So how do Christians pray like pagans?
Remember Jesus is speaking to us, he’s talking to his disciples.
This is for self-criticism, not the criticism of pagans on the outside.
Pagan prayers by Christians take several forms:
It might be using prayers like a magic spell.
Thinking that just by saying the words themselves, maybe saying them
over and over, that God will have to pay attention and act on your behalf.
A few years ago there was something called the “Deliverance Movement”
that emphasized the importance of spiritual warfare in the Christian life.
And that’s fine but a big part of the teaching in that movement was that
for prayer to be effective, you had to say certain phrases.
“The blood of Christ.” “Pray a hedge of thorns.”
More recently, the prosperity Gospel movement, the name it, claim it preachers
have sometimes emphasized the importance of saying certain words or phrases
in order to compel God to give you that Cadillac or whatever it is you want.
On a more humorous note: A seminary friend who played high school football,
said that his whole career, not a game went by that the team didn’t
say the Lord’s Prayer before going on the field. Sure would put them one up.
He said: The only reason we used the Lord’s Prayer,
and not something else, was that we were Bible Belt pagans!
Pagan prayer by Christians might be going though motions without mind and heart.
One night years ago I was putting Adrienne and Eliza to bed and I was trying
to pray with them, but every time I began to pray, they started giggling.
So finally I said to them in my preacher voice:
Girls, prayer is very important. We are talking to God.
So you need to stop giggling and pay attention.
They immediately sobered up. And I started to pray.
And when I did, they broke out in open laughter.
I stopped and said: Girls, did you not hear what I just said?
They said: We’re sorry dad, but you were praying the food prayer!
And in that instant I realized that after my great lecture about paying attention,
and really talking to God, I had said:
“God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food . . .”
Doesn’t that bug you when a person does that to you?
Talks to you without paying attention? But we sometimes talk to God that way.
Those are very obvious examples. But mostly, I think it’s more subtle.
It’s when a Christian prays to put God in his debt, to earn credit from God,
so that God will give him what he wants or needs.
It’s not earnest and familiar talking with God.
It’s a business relationship. God, you can give me something I want.
I’m going to pay you for it. Payment happens to be prayer.
Here I am down on my knees God. Now get me what I want.
Do you ever pray like that?
Do you ever pray, not to talk with God, but just to get something from him?
And beyond prayer, what about the other acts of religion?
Do you ever go to church or give your tithes and offerings or even live a moral life,
not so much to commune with God and love him and express gratitude,
but to gain spiritual credits?
Pagans don’t know there is a loving heavenly Father who has sacrificed
his own Son for their salvation.
Pagans don’t know that through Christ you can be adopted into the family
and have access to all the rights and privileges of the sons of God.
But we do. We know those things. We know that God is our Father who loves us.
We know that Christ is our elder brother and he loves us too.
We know that the heart of our salvation is a personal relationship.
So Jesus says: Guard your heart against the emptiness of pagan prayer.
Taking this glorious privilege of earnest and familiar talking with God,
and turning it into a business transaction.
But the Lord doesn’t stop here. He doesn’t stop with the emptiness of pagan prayer.
The Christian ethic is never just negative. “Just say no” is not in the Bible.
It’s always say no to sin and yes to God. It’s the negative and then the positive.
So after showing us the emptiness of pagan prayer, Christ holds before us
something wonderful, something worth doing with all our hearts.
That brings us to our second point:
MP#2 The satisfaction of true prayer
After describing the babbling and empty words of the pagan to his gods, he says:
“Do not be like them, for your Father know what you need before you ask him.”
Those are wonderful words. And as you read them you see immediately
the difference between paganism and a personal faith in the living God.
He’s your Father and you are his child.
He knows exactly what you need even before you ask him
Last night we were eating a Buena Vista, sitting in a corner booth,
right under an air conditioner vent. It was so cold that Will pulled his arms
inside his t-shirt and was eating his chips like this . . .
There was another family at the other corner booth,
And right at my elbow was a highchair with a car seat on it and a tiny baby—
it couldn’t have been more than a month or two old.
All that cold air was blowing down on that baby. I didn’t even think about it,
but one point the dad reached over and raised the hood of the car seat
to block the air and I heard him ask his wife, do I need to go out to the car
and get another blanket? Before that baby had peeped.
Before it even knew it was cold, his father knew what he needed.
And your Father in heaven knows what you need before you ask him!
When that sinks in, it cuts the root of pagan prayer.
You know you never have to bargain with God, you never have to try to
manipulate him or get into his good graces by your religious acts.
He knows everything you need and he’s your Father.
When you doubt that—look at the cross.
Paul says in Romans 8—
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all—
how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Think of all of the things he gives every day that you never specifically asked for.
We hardly ever really ask for our daily bread and for protection
from the thousands of temptation that endanger us every day.
But he gives us those things anyway.
Look at your life and you will have to admit that most of the blessings
God gives, he gives you even when you don’t pray.
Think of the times God has given you something really good you never prayed
for, and when you get it your conscience says—I should have prayed for that!
And think of the really big things:
You didn’t ask God to choose you. You didn’t ask to be born again.
You didn’t ask God to send Christ to die on the cross for you.
But he knew your need and gave it to you anyway.
These are wonderful words of Christ—but they’re also puzzling.
They raise a perplexing question—Why pray?
Why do we need to ask God for anything if he already knows what we need?
That’s a great question. And in the answer is wonderful.
If our Father knows what we need before we even ask, then why pray?
Obviously we don’t need to pray to give God any new information.
Jesus tells us that he already knows our needs. He knows all things.
And we don’t need to pray to convince him to be merciful and kind to us.
He’s been showing us his mercy and kindness long before we ever prayed.
But it’s also true that if you don’t pray, you will miss a lot.
Because God has appointed prayer as the means through which
we receive many of his blessings.
Over and over the Bible speaks of the influence and power of prayer.
Makes clear that we receive many good things through prayer.
And if we don’t pray, we will miss things.
“Whatever you ask in my name, it shall be done for you.”
“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
“You have not because you ask not.”
The Bible makes clear that prayer is an actual instrument of change.
It has an effect on the events of the world. It changes the course of things.
And there are many examples in the Bible of prayer doing that.
Elijah praying for it not to rain, and then praying for it to rain again,
is the great example in the book of James.
But that still doesn’t really answer the question—Why pray?
Why did God give us prayer and insist that we pray, and make our prayers
such an important part of his plan and purpose for our lives?
He didn’t have to do it that way.
He could have provided everything we needed without prayer.
The rock bottom reason for prayer is that God wants us to live in personal
communion with him. He wants a real relationship of love and dependence.
He wants us to talk to him about the things that matter the most.
That’s why we pray. And that’s the heart of the Christian life.
Think about that father and baby I described in the restaurant.
It would be possible for that father to provide for his child in an impersonal
and distant way. He could send money to provide for food and clothes.
He could hire other people to play with the child and take care of him.
He could work things out so that his child
would never have to ask him for anything.
But no good parent would ever dream of doing something like that.
We want our children to come to us and ask us for things
We want to provide for our children directly in answer to their appeals.
Because it’s through our children’s requests and our answering of those requests,
that a true parent-child relationship is formed and expressed.
It doesn’t happen any other way.
That dad who I watched cover up his infant in the restaurant is looking
forward to the day when his child is old enough to say: Daddy, I’m cold.
And he will say, Come here, let me hug you. Here, put on my coat.
Get close to me and get warm.
That’s the way love is both expressed to children and instilled in them.
No father would be happy to have his son take everything and ask for nothing.
It would be thankless. It would make his son self-centered and ungrateful.
He would not learn to give to others as he had been given to.
He would not know the great mercies he had been shown.
And that’s exactly what God has done for us in prayer.
By asking and receiving from him, we learn all the great lessons
of the Christian life.
Prayer makes personal our relationship with God.
It makes it real at the level of our daily life.
It’s the link that binds us to God in the most personal way,
as one person to another, as a child to his father.
So guard your heart from pagan prayers. Don’t take this magnificent gift—
conversation with your Father, and turn it into an empty bargaining tool
to get what you need and want.
He already knows. And if you ever doubt that. Look at the cross.
Before you ever even thought to ask, before you were ever born,
God the Father in love saw your greatest need, and took care of you.
So talk with him. That, the Lord Jesus is telling us, is the heart of prayer.
In the 1600s there was a French Catholic priest named Francois Fenelon.
He came into conflict with the King of France and even with the Pope
for his views of prayer and the Christian life.
Because he insisted that the heart of prayer is not ritual and performance.
It’s not counting your prayer beads to check things off with God.
But prayer is something else entirely.
This is what he wrote:
“Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one’s heart,
it’s pleasures and pains to a dear friend.
Tell him all your troubles that he may comfort you;
tell him your joys, that he may sober them;
Tell him your longings that he may purify them;
Tell him your dislikes, that he may help you conquer them.
Talk to him of your temptations, that he may shield you from them.
Show him the wounds of your heart, that he may heal them.
Tell him how your self-love makes you unjust to others,
how vanity tempts you to be insincere.
People who have no secrets from each other never lack subjects of conversation.
They do no weigh their words, for there is nothing to be held back,
neither do they seek for something to say.
They talk out of the abundance of their heart,
without consideration, they say just what they think.
Blessed are they who attain to such familiar, unreserved conversation with God.”
What a wonderful picture of prayer. Through Christ, may that be true of us!