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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Article by David Hall

Praying that is Not Presumptuous

March 19, 2015 •

Read Mt. 6:5-8

The next example from the first Gospel that we’ll consider briefly concerns praying that is not presumptuous. The same principles hold for prayer as for almsgiving. All one needs to do to appreciate Our Lord’s wisdom in these verses is to attend a prayer meeting where the light shines on the pray-ers.

In verses 5-8 Jesus provides us with two modes of prayer that are unacceptable. The first of those was performed by the hypocrites (note again the assumed “when” you pray and “hypocrites” in v. 5). The hypocrites—Pharisee leaders of his day—prayed so that public attention would be focused on them. In the synagogues, the leader of the congregation would present himself visibly toward the front near the Ark and, lifting up his hands as noticeably as possible, proceed to pray a deeply-felt, well-rehearsed prayer. If out and about at one of the three required times of prayer (9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.—think how Muslims stop for prayer at set times) a Pharisee would stop, sometimes on a busy corner or the top step entering into the synagogue, and halt traffic with his dramatic posture. With head bowed and arms outstretched, he would pray a loud, but perfect Jewish prayer.

I imagine if one planned just a little, he could be at an optimal intersection or visual point, even slap several neighbors’ hands out of the way, as he enthusiastically raised his own hands, and attract who knows how much attention. Meanwhile, the neighbors knew this person was cheap, or that he mistreated his children, or was lazy, or a host of other sins that brought embarrassment to his religion.

Public prayer has its place as a vital element of worship. Jesus is certainly not ruling out that kind of important prayer, much less private prayer or family prayer. What he is roundly condemning is private devotion turned into spectacle, and it can happen more frequently than we want to admit, for example:

  • when Christians think prayer is not as effective, unless accompanied by thousands, as if more numbers made God more attentive;
  • when Christians mistake the length of prayer with the depth of devotion;
  • when Christians want everyone else to take the exact same outward acts, unless commanded by Scripture, that one individual does;
  • when Christians treat prayers, prayer retreats, or prayer walks as a magic formula as an ancient shaman would.

Christ, I assure you, does not despise any believing prayer. What he blasts here, however, are ostentation and formalism.

Jesus says we are not to love (v. 5) praying like this. The reason these hypocrites loved this kind of prayer was because they could be seen by men. It was not communication with the living God that motivated these prayers but adulation by men. If that is a person’s motive for praying, then Christ pronounces they’ll have as their full and only reward—the adulation of others. And that’s all! I wonder if this ever happens in prayer groups today?

A second mode to avoid in prayer is the vain repetition of phrases. Our prayers should be simple and heart-felt—not vain babbling like the pagans. We should remember this whenever we pray out loud in public or pray written prayers or the Lord’s Prayer. If you can’t pray sincerely and simply then don’t merely mouth the words or repeat yesterday’s prayer. Solomon said it well: “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth so let your words be few.” (Eccl. 5:2) Each of these faulty, hypocritical, human approval-seeking modes of prayer will have its own reward.

Positively Christ tells us how to pray. Do your own study on what he says to do sometime! One simple guide is to read the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Shorter Catechism for a simple explanation of each petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Contrary to avoiding public prayer, Jesus teaches us definitely to pray and that public, spoken prayer is acceptable. However, he teaches that our prayers would be better if more was done in secret than in public. He instructs us (v. 6) to go into our room or private office and close the door (imperative) so as not to attract attention or be distracted. Then without the distraction of trying to impress others we can pray to our Father who sees what is done in secret. That will be our reward—to know that our Father approves of our prayer. Are you convicted as I am for the lack of this in my life—I get too busy!

Jesus further teaches that we are to pray simply and sincerely i. e., without preach-ing to God. For God knows what we need. We are not to insult God’s omniscience by attempting to tell him every little detail. He probably already knows all. So we pray simply, sincerely and privately—not trying to draw attention to ourselves, but communicate with our Father as his children. You see that is the basis of our prayer—the Father/child relationship. That is why the Fatherhood of God is mentioned 12 times in this chapter. Our prayer life is healthy not when official, but when familial. “Father” used seven times in these ten verses.

A hypocrite/pharisee could never pray the Lord’s Prayer. It brings no glory to man. It only stresses dependence and calls on God our Father to help us. It allows no room for self-righteousness. 

Hypocrites, Jesus knew, loved to go to public places “in order to be seen by men.” They loved to put on a public religious act so that others would applaud their piety. Be sure to find the balance here and don’t think Jesus is condemning all public expressions of piety.

Dr. Terry Johnson helpfully notes that our Lord is not condemning these legitimate postures for prayer described in the Bible:

  • Standing (the usual posture) (1 Sam. 1:26; Mt. 11:25; Lk. 18:11, 13);
  • Kneeling (2 Chr. 6:13; Dan. 6:10; Lk. 22:41; Acts 7:60, 9:40, 20:36, 21:5);
  • Sitting (2 Sam. 7:18);
  • Lying prostrate (Num. 16:22; Josh. 5:14; Dan. 8:17; Rev. 1:17, 4:10, 5:8, 5:14, 11:16).[1]

Posture isn’t irrelevant since we are not pure spirits. Posture does count for something. There is a reverential pose, which is appropriate to prayer and more generally for worship. Thus when the Psalmist calls us to worship he urges us to “bow down” and “kneel” (Ps 95:6). John Stott once said that slouching in prayer was an abomination to God. One would never assume that kind of flippant or casual posture in the actual presence of the Almighty. But it is possible to reverentially and respectfully stand, kneel, sit, and lie prostrate. Our point is that it is not the standing per se to which Jesus objects.

However and whenever you pray, make sure it is not presumptuous.

[1] Terry L. Johnson, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the Lectio Contnua Commentary on the New Testament (forthcoming; from unpublished mss.)


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