There are many passages in the New Testament that emphasize the importance and necessity of prayer for all Christians. However, Jesus addresses the subject with the most depth, giving practical advice on how to pray and how not to pray. Let us consider the general principles He set forth in Matthew 6:5-8 - "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him."
Jesus expects His disciples to pray; such is clear by His use of the word "when", not "if." "When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites" (Matt. 6:5). Jesus is emphasizing the need to be sincere in prayer. Those who pray to be seen of men, as those who do charitable deeds with the same motive, have no reward from the heavenly Father. Hypocrites or pretenders are often diligent to exercise their "religiousness" in the most obvious way in order to gain the acclaim of others. These individuals are full of pride and lovers of themselves. Such does not please the Lord (e.g., Luke 18:10-14; Matt. 23; cf. James 4:6; II Tim. 3:2ff).
"When you pray, go into your room, and...shut your door" (Matt. 6:6). Jesus is stressing the advantage of solitude in prayer. One can more easily develop sincerity in prayer privately. Generally, there will be fewer distractions and disturbances since one can better control the environment when isolated from others. The essence of prayer is seeking after God, and it is undoubtedly easier to seek Him out in solitude because the temptation to pray to be seen of men is removed. God rewards those who petition Him in a proper spirit by granting their requests that are made in accordance with His will (I John 5:14,15).
One must not conclude that Jesus is here prohibiting public prayer. The New Testament authorizes Christians to engage in public prayer (Acts 2:42; I Tim. 2:8; James 5:16), although it should be noted that Christ seemed to pray more often when He was alone (e.g., Matt. 14:23; 26:36ff; Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18).
"Do not use vain repetitions" (Matt. 6:7). Our Lord underscores the need for simplicity in prayer (cf. Eccl. 5:2). One must avoid using meaningless, mechanical phrases. The pagans were often guilty of such (e.g., I Kings 18:26; Acts 19:34). Note that Jesus doesn't condemn repetition in prayer; He condemns vain repetition. A prayer can be repetitive and still be meaningful (e.g., Matt. 26:44). Offering thanks for food at every meal could turn into vain repetition, but not if one is truly grateful and mindful of the fact that God is the One who gives all things.
The beauty of the Lord's model prayer, which we will consider shortly, is its simplicity. It is less than 60 words in Greek. If one follows Christ's example, his public prayers will be shorter and his private prayers will be longer.
"Your Father knows the things you have need of" (Matt. 6:8). To have God as one's Father is to have the security of knowing that one's prayers are heard; thus, vain repetition is unnecessary. In fact, one's needs are known even before the first petition is uttered. Consequently, some wonder why prayer is necessary. It cannot be said that God is ignorant and in need of being informed, nor is He reluctant that we need to persuade Him. It appears that God imparts His gifts in response to man's eagerness to receive them (cf. Luke 11:5-13; James 4:2).
Even if this were not the case, one should pray simply because he is commanded to do so. I Thessalonians 5:17 says - "Pray without ceasing". Since such is physically impossible, perhaps the meaning is that God expects His children to have a mindset that continually seeks to be in tune with Him. If such is correct, then to "pray without ceasing" is to be mindful always of the Lord and His will in one's everyday decisions and activities. It is to communicate with the Lord silently and informally throughout one's day, offering brief words of thanks and praise as well as confessing shortcomings and expressing petitions. These brief prayers can and should be offered regularly as one goes about his business. Let me hasten to state that I am not advocating that all of one's prayers be brief, isolated thoughts. I believe it is wise to also make a custom of offering more in-depth prayers at certain times during the day. Daniel is an excellent example of this (cf. Dan. 6:10).
God must be approached with confidence, not doubting, in prayer (Heb. 4:16; James 1:5-8). Even if one feels inadequate to express himself fully before God, he can be comforted in the realization that God knows his heart (Rom. 8:26,27). Patience and persistence are also required (cf. Luke 18:1-8). It must be remembered that the Father "is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Eph. 3:20).
In addition to the principles on prayer that Jesus shared with His disciples, He also offered an example for them to consider and learn from. "In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen." (Matt. 6:9-13).
When Jesus prayed, He always addressed the heavenly Father, and He did so in a reverent manner - "Hallowed be Your name" (cf. Psa. 145:1). God's name should be considered holy; it is not common or something to be treated lightly. When one addresses the Father in prayer, he should be as respectful as possible. After all, one is not just speaking to anybody but to the Almighty--the only true and living God! If one gives respect and honor to his earthly father, how much more should he give to God!
Matthew 6:10 contains petitions of the past and present. "Your kingdom come" is a petition of the past. It is no longer appropriate to pray for the kingdom to come. This prayer was answered in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost. The kingdom of God has come, and Christ is now reigning (cf. Col. 1:13; I Cor. 15:24,25). Instead, one should pray that the kingdom be enlarged. "Your will be done" is a petition of the present. This is essentially a prayer for the spread of the gospel and for obedience to it. One should pray that God's will be done everywhere, at all times, and by all beings. To offer such a prayer is to commit oneself to the doing of God's will as well as to the teaching of that will to others and encouraging them to also submit to it.
The petition in Matthew 6:11 is not for milk and honey, the symbols of luxury, but for bread that will be sufficient for this day. And, as long as it is today, one does not need tomorrow's bread; instead, one should pray for his daily needs everyday (cf. Exo. 16:12-31). God will supply all necessary daily needs if one seeks His kingdom first (Matt. 6:25-33; cf. Phil. 4:19). Of course, one must realize that there is a difference between his wants and his needs. One must be careful not to let prosperity interfere with thankfulness for daily needs (cf. Prov. 30:8,9).
"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). Jesus uses the word "debts" here in a spiritual way. Our sins are like spiritual debts to God (cf. Matt. 18:21-35). Jesus elaborates upon this thought immediately after the close of this model prayer. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14,15).
Back in Matthew 6:13, Jesus made this request of the Father - "Do not lead us into temptation". This request may seem somewhat troubling in light of James 1:13. Why would anyone pray that the Father not lead him or her into temptation if God does not tempt anyone in the first place? The solution is that this phrase could be translated - "Do not lead us into trials". There are plenty of trials to deal with in life without one praying for any more! Of course, when trials are present, learn to face them joyfully (James 1:2-4).
Next is an element of prayer that is rarely heard publicly--"deliver us from the evil one" or keep us from evil (e.g., Luke 22:31,32). Prayers for forgiveness are heard regularly, but not for the prevention of sin. Faithful disciples of Christ should pray to be delivered from the evil one; they should pray to be able to escape the severe temptations that the devil may present to them.
The second half of this verse accentuates the fact that one's prayers (and life) should always praise God - "For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen" (Matt. 6:13).
A parallel to this section of text can be found in Luke 11:1-4. Therein Jesus' disciples ask Him to teach them how to pray. The Lord then proceeds to utter a prayer very similar to the one Matthew records. The fact that Jesus responds to His disciples' request implies that one can learn how to pray. It is not a gift that is possessed by some and not by others but a talent in which one may grow and develop. One of the greatest needs in growing as Christians is to learn to be more prayerful. To do such will teach greater dependence upon God and cause all to be more introspective.
Dear listeners, what about your prayer life? Is it what it should be? Our Father wants us to be prayerful people. He wants us to be sincere and feel secure in our prayers we offer to Him. May we always be mindful of the beauty of simplicity when it comes to talking to Him, as well as the benefits of seclusion. Let us strive to recognize God's awesome nature in our prayers as well as His plan for our lives. May we appreciate the providence of God which sustains us on a daily basis and utter prayers that reflect our reliance upon Him (physically and spiritually). Let us strive to manifest a gracious disposition to others as we endeavor to more fully comprehend our own personal need for forgiveness.
In closing, I want to encourage you to make a prayer list, if you have not done so before. A prayer list is a tool that can help you become more disciplined and reflective in your prayer life. Begin by writing or typing a list of physical blessings for which you are thankful. Then proceed to compile a section of spiritual blessings for which you are grateful. Include a section for the people in your life (including at least one or two individuals whom you are trying diligently to bring to Christ). Pray for the Lord's blessings upon them and petition the Father for specific needs you know they have. Make a list of your own personal petitions, as well as a reminder to pray for God's will to be done in your life. Devote a section of the prayer list to the attributes of God; genuinely praise God for who He is. Finally, make sure to devote a section to weaknesses you are trying to overcome and sins you need to confess. These suggestions are not all-inclusive, though they should definitely give you a good foundation to get started. Pray in secret through the entire list at least once a week. Update the list appropriately monthly or quarterly. This will help you see how the Lord is working in your life.
Friends, may those who love the Lord pray fervently, persistently, and frequently. Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.