Jesus’ Do’s and Don’t of Prayer
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 NKJ
We’ve heard it many times that we are to pray every day. How do we do that? Even the disciples and the people of Galilee were confused when Jesus taught them what we call The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:1–8).
Jesus was providing a template for praying when He told us The Lord’s Prayer. It’s just a general guideline. But He had more to say about praying than that. Praying is more than reciting some words, it has a few rules.
A Gathering in Galilee
In the early chapters of Matthew, Jesus is preaching to crowds of people in Galilee. The people came from all around the Galilee area, some from many miles away just to hear Jesus speak. So, you can imagine Jesus wanted to convey a lot of information to His large, captive audience.
It is within these early chapters that Jesus sets the record straight about murder, divorce, adultery, love, wealth, judging others, charitable deeds, and the “Golden Rule.” In chapter six, He also talks about how to pray.
Jesus felt compelled to talk about prayer because for too long they had been given a wrong impression of how to do it. The people’s only example was from the Pharisees, and they were way off base.
The Pharisees would typically stand in the Temple praying in their loudest voices. They would do the same thing out in the streets. They weren’t praying loudly because they were overcome with emotion. Oh no. It was all a show for others to see, and they liked it that way. Their desire to be the center of attention fed their greed for power and puffed-up egos.
But then Jesus came to town.
The Don’ts of Prayer
In His message to the Galilean people, Jesus not only reiterated the importance of praying, He clearly explained how to do it correctly.
Yes, we can use The Lord’s Prayer as a guideline, but Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:5–8 three specific rules. All the do’s and don’ts, you might say.
Don’t Number 1
The first thing Jesus teaches about prayer is to absolutely not act like the Pharisees. Jesus knew the Pharisees were listening when He said this, which is why He doesn’t mention them by name in Matthew 6:5.
“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.” NKJ
Praying should never be a spectacle or a show for others to see. Unfortunately, too many of us grew up listening to priests and pastors who speak to their congregations using verbose, giant words hidden in dramatic gestures.
Let’s be honest, preachers like that are a big turn-off, but this is exactly what the Pharisees did. It made the people feel dumb and alienated. That’s problem number one.
The other part of the Pharisees’ problem is they weren’t really praying. They were only talking “at” God, not talking “to” Him.
If the Pharisees thought God was responding to their prayers, it would seem unlikely He would. God does not want to be talked “at.” Who does, right?
For example, if you have kids, at one point no doubt one of them has come to you jibber-jabbering away, and as soon as he’s done talking he runs away. Sound familiar? Did you hear anything he said? Probably not because he was talking “at” you, wasn’t he? This is how God feels when we talk “at” Him. We blah-blah-blah making our requests, but we’re not connecting with Him relationally.
So, Jesus is cautioning us to not talk “at” Him and to not make a show of our praying for others to see. The consequences of being a show-off are in the last sentence of verse five, “…they have their reward.”
What Jesus is talking about here is that men who pray simply to get noticed get the reward of men’s attention and nothing more. God calls this hypocrisy, which He absolutely does not reward. Rather, hypocrites are punished for their sin.
Don’t Number 2
The second thing we shouldn’t do when we pray is much like Don’t Number 1. Verse seven of Matthew 6 says,
“When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathens do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” NKJ
The Contemporary English Version puts it like this:
“When you pray, don’t talk on and on as people who don’t know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers. CEV
God doesn’t want us to recite our prayers. Some might point to The Lord’s Prayer in either Matthew 6:9–13 or Luke 11:2–4. Again, The Lord’s Prayer is only a template illustrating simplicity and conciseness when we pray. Also, some churches today have their congregations say scripted words and prayers, but Jesus is telling us not to do that or else we risk falling into repeated, thoughtless speech.
What God would rather us do is talk less and listen more. We should offer our praise and make our requests, but then we need to be silent and give God a chance to respond. If we don’t, we are talking “at” Him. This is not how Jesus wants to build a relationship with us.
Like any friendship or parent-child relationship, God wants to interact with us and be close to us. We need to practice listening more to Him instead of talking on and on without thinking.
The “Do” of Praying
So, what should we do when we pray? We know we need to listen more, but that can be tough in a busy house or a compelling church service on a schedule. Jesus knows we have this problem, so in verse six of Matthew 6 He tells us what to do.
“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.” NKJ
Jesus is telling us to pray privately in a room with the door shut. No noise, no distractions, just you and God spending time together. He loves to talk privately with us in a secret place.
Your secret place can be any room in your house or wherever you are. I’ve been known to pray in the shower or even while I’m sitting in the carline at my sons’ school. Praying behind closed-doors is best, but I’m a big fan of praying wherever you are that has as few distractions as possible. No kids, no phone, no pets…just you and God.
God is all-knowing. He knows your secret place, and He sees and hears you there when you pray. He promises to reward us openly, out in public, when we treasure our private prayer time with Him.
How to Pray
So, we know we shouldn’t conduct grand prayers in public, we know not to be a “chatty Cathy” with God because He doesn’t want to be talked “at.” Instead, we know should go into a secret place to pray quietly with no distractions.
But, when we get to our secret place, then what? We’re down on our knees ready to go, but when we open our mouths the words are suddenly hard to find. I often have this problem, and I don’t know why. Over time, though, I’ve learned three steps I can follow that help me get through the awkwardness of silence.
Step 1: Humble Yourself
If you’re going to get alone with God in a secret place, first you need to humble yourself and feel your need to be with your heavenly Father. The proper attitude and mindset are essential for effective prayer time.
So, take a deep breath and relax. Lean into the quiet and allow the Holy Spirit to help you focus on God and the conversation you’re about to have with Him.
Step 2: Call His Name
In The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus begins by saying, “Our Father, who is in heaven, holy is Your name.” If this is how Jesus talks to His Father, so should we. Open your prayer time by calling the Father’s name and offering praise.
Sometimes when I pray, I don’t really know what to say, so I simply call His name. I just say, “Father.” Just saying His name gives me instant peace and calm as I enter His presence. The cares of the day begin to melt away knowing I’m connecting with the One who truly loves me unconditionally.
I know a great song on Christian radio that says when you don’t know what to say, just say Jesus. I love that song! It’s so true. Just call His name and He will respond with His love and attention.
Step 3: Be Still
Jesus told us in Matthew 6:7 that we shouldn’t go on and on when we pray. Instead, we should be still and listen to God. We can’t hear what He has to say if we keep talking.
So, be still. Soak in His presence and allow it to transform your mind. Listen to His response to you. It may not be words you hear but perhaps a spiritual feeling. Either way, you’ll understand what Jesus said in Matthew 6:8.
“Therefore, do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” NKJ
If you need verbal confirmation, God will give it to you. If you need a big hug of reassurance, He will give it to you. He knows exactly what you need even before you did. All you need to do is be still and listen. He will respond to you in the exact way you need it most.
Make prayer a priority in your daily life. Find your secret place, call to the Lord, and listen for His response. Spending time daily with God will transform your entire walk with Him. You’ll feel closer and more loved than ever before.
God longs to connect with you and be close to you. Will you give Him your time today?