Matthew 6: 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
If you are a fan of sports movies, you will know that somewhere along the way there will be a scene with a motivational speech. There is either a tragic moment or a momentous opportunity that requires a coach or mentor to rally the troops. Whether it was Gene Hackman’s “I don’t care what the scoreboard says” speech in Hoosiers, or Denzel Washington’s “And you take a lesson from the dead” address in Remember the Titans, they were able to bond a team to a common mission, to a common goal. You may have memories of a speech you heard, or one you delivered yourself on a sports field or court. Effective ones brought the most out of all the listeners, and ineffective ones sounded more like Charley Brown’s teacher.
I read an article entitled, 5 Tips for Writing a Powerful and Inspiration Speech. These tips were: 1) Define Your Primary Message; 2) Use Storytelling to Make Your Point; 3) Know Your Audience; 4) Write an Evocative Speech; and 5) Conclude in a Way that Encourages Your Audience to Engage. There isn’t anyone in history who checked off all those boxes more than Jesus. One of the most well-known teachings delivered by Jesus was the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
This Sermon is set early in Jesus’ ministry after he was baptized by John the Baptist (Matthew 3), after he gathered his first disciples and preached to many large crowds (Matthew 4). While he teaches on many topics with specific guidance, the primary interwoven message appears to be that God is our Father who cares about our heart, not just external righteous deeds and religion. One of the ways he makes this point is by discussing prayer. 5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6: 5-6)
Jesus’ was not saying we should hole ourselves up when we pray because we are afraid or ashamed of praying (Daniel did the exact opposite in Daniel 6:10), but rather he was stressing that the primary purpose of prayer is to come into communion with God directly. It’s not about making a big a show or to flaunt our godliness. In the context of the Bible, the religious elites of the time (e.g. the Pharisees), would pray to be seen and heard by people, rather than simply speaking to their Father in heaven.
Jesus went on to give a prescription of how to pray (vs. 9-13). It is key to note that the Bible says “how” to pray, not exactly “what” to pray. The Greek word used here for “how” is hoytō and it means “in this way”. While I don’t necessarily see harm in reciting the Lord’s prayer, the challenge is that it can become some rote memory exercise, where we forget the actual meaning. Jesus’ intent was that when we pray it should be genuine. We need to glorify God; long for his coming again; ask him to supply our needs, forgive our sins and help us forgive the sins of others; and help us to resist the temptations of the evil. God longs to hear these things in our own words, with genuineness, not rehearsed speech. God doesn’t want babbling; he wants to hear the words of a sincere child. Do you pray that way to your Father in heaven?