Some people believe that their prayers have merit. If this is so, then it could easily be concluded that the longer the prayer, the greater the merit. What is the truth? If a person prayed long enough, would the prayer have enough merit to partially expiate for sin or is it possible that even eloquent prayers could be just idle words?
Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 6:5).
In this passage of Scripture, the Lord is not telling us that we should not pray in public. He Himself prayed in public many times as recorded in the Scripture. But what He is teaching is that a private prayer should not be made public. In our private devotions, our prayers are to reach the ears of no one except a prayer-hearing God. No curious ear is to hear the burden of our private petitions.
Jesus said, when you pray, go into your room; enter your closet. Have a place for private prayer where you can be alone with God. Jesus Himself had private places for communion with God. That, by the way, is the way that Judas Iscariot knew where to lead the people when he betrayed Him. He knew that the garden of Gethsemane was a place Jesus often went to in the evening to pray.
Jesus said to pray to your Father who sees in secret. In the name of Jesus we may come into God’s presence with the same confidence that a small child comes to a parent. No man is needed as a mediator. Through Jesus we may open our hearts to God as One Who knows and loves us and hears us.
In the secret place of prayer, where no one but God sees or hears, we are free to pour out to Him the most secret and hidden desires of the heart, and the Father has promised that He will hear. Remember, He is a Father of infinite love and pity and He never fails to answer the cry of human need. He will speak to us when we take time to talk to Him. Here’s what the Bible says about His character in James 5:11, last part: “… the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.” The Lord is indeed very compassionate and merciful. He is of tender mercy. He waits unwearied and loves to hear the confessions of the wayward and to accept their penitence. He watches longingly for some return of gratitude in the same way a mother watches for a smile of recognition from her beloved child. He wants us to understand how earnestly and tenderly His heart yearns over us. And He wants us to bring to Him our trials, our sorrows, our troubles, our wounds, our weakness, and our emptiness. He can supply all of our need. The Bible teaches that never has one been disappointed who came to Him.
Notice what it says in Psalm 34:5: “They looked to Him and were radiant, and their faces were not ashamed.” The Lord answers the prayer of even the humblest of His children (verse 6).
When we come to the Lord in secret, telling Him our needs and pleading with Him for help, we will not plead in vain. Jesus said, “… your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6). If we make Jesus our daily companion and friend, we will become assimilated to His image. By looking to Jesus, we will have an increase in piety, purity, and fervor.
In Matthew 6:7, Jesus continued talking about prayer. He said, “… when you pray, do not use vain repetitions like the heathen do” (literal translation). Now the heathen, then and now, looked upon their prayers as having in themselves merit to atone for sin. Therefore, the longer the prayer, the greater the merit. If they could become holy by their own efforts, they would have something in themselves of which to rejoice, some ground for the boasting. This perspective of prayer is the result of the idea of self-expiation, the principle which lies at the foundation of false religion. The Pharisees had adopted this pagan idea of prayer. It is by no means extinct, even in our time, even among those who profess to be Christians.
When we repeat set, customary phrases, and the heart feels no need of God, we are just repeating, going over, a formal prayer of the same character as the vain repetitions of the heathen. Nobody wants to talk to a friend who’s just mumbling the same set words and phrases in his mind, and whose heart is not in the conversation. The Lord isn’t interested in hearing a prayer like that either.
Prayer is not an expiation for sin. It does not have virtue or merit in itself. All the eloquent words that we might command are not equivalent to even one holy desire. Even the most eloquent prayers can be worthless, idle words if they do not express the true sentiment of the heart. But if we pray from an earnest heart, if we simply express the real wants of our soul, the same way that we would ask an earthly friend for a favor and expect that it would be received, then we have prayed a prayer of faith, and that prayer will, for sure, be answered.
God is not in need of our ceremonial compliments, but even the unspoken cry of a heart that is broken and subdued with a sense of sin and utter weakness and helplessness will find its way to the Father of all mercy.
As Jesus continued talking about the Christian life in Matthew 6:24, He said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Notice what Jesus said. He didn’t say you should not serve God and mammon. He said, you cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon, by the way, is a Greek word that simply means real estate, money, property, wealth, material possessions. Jesus said you can’t serve God and material things. He said this cannot be done. In other words, no one can occupy a neutral position. There is no middle class who neither love God nor serve the enemy of righteousness, because the facts of the matter are, if I do not give myself completely to God, I am under the control of another power, listening in my mind to another voice, whose suggestions are of an entirely different character.
If I try to give God half and half service, that actually places me on the side of the enemy as a successful ally of the hosts of darkness. So, when men claim to be Christians, to be soldiers of Christ, but engage with the confederacy of Satan and help along his side, they prove themselves to be actually enemies of Christ instead of the professed friends of Christ which they say they are. What happens then is that they betray sacred trusts and form a link between Satan and the true Christians, aiding Satan in his constant efforts to steal away the hearts of Christ’s solders.
We are talking about the battle for the mind and heart. We are not talking about just outward words or behavior. When you think this through, remember that Jesus said that you cannot serve God and mammon.
The strongest bulwark of vice in our world is not the terrible life of some abandoned sinner or a degraded outcast. The strongest bulwark of vice in our world is the life which otherwise appears virtuous, honorable, and noble, but in which one sin is fostered or one vice indulged. When there is somebody who is struggling with some terrible temptation, the example of such a person is one of the most powerful enticements to sin. Thus a person who claims to be a Christian but indulges one sin, one vice, is used by Satan to be a stumbling block to others so that they not only stumble in this life, but may even forfeit eternal life.
In the apostle John’s first epistle, he wrote about this problem, saying things that should cause us to sit up and pay attention. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:15, 16). You cannot love both.
Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 6:31–33, “… do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
Do not be so caught up in worldliness that the sum and substance of your life is just trying to make a living, or getting material possessions. He says that is what the nations do; their whole life is absorbed in getting food, and drink, and clothing, and whatever material things they need. Is there a better way to live, a higher way to live, so that you do not need to be pressed down all the time, just trying to survive, and yet not knowing if you will be able to survive?
The people who were listening to Jesus speak these words were still anxiously awaiting Him to make an announcement of an earthly kingdom that He would set up. Jesus was opening to them in this discourse the treasures of heaven. But the question uppermost in their minds was, how will a connection with this man advance my prospects in this world? Interestingly, that is the same question many people are asking today. What church can I go to that will best advance my interests, my worldly interests, my professional or business interests?
Jesus shows them that in making the things of this world their supreme anxiety, they were like the heathen nations around them, living as if there were no God whose tender care was over all His creatures. Jesus said, the nations seek after these things, but your heavenly Father knows that you need all of these things (Luke 12:30).
In other words, Jesus is saying, I have come to open to you a kingdom of love, and righteousness, and peace. Open your hearts to receive this kingdom and make its service your highest interest. Even though it is a spiritual kingdom that I am bringing you, do not be afraid, do not fear that your needs in this life will be uncared for. If you give yourself to God’s service, the One who has all power in heaven and earth will provide for your needs. Jesus said, seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of these things – that’s the things necessary for this life, food and clothing – will be given to you.
Now in saying this, Jesus does not release us from the necessity of effort. He does not say that we do not have to do anything, that God will get it for you. In this same chapter, He talked about how God fulfills the needs of the birds. “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (verse 26). How does the heavenly Father feed the birds? Does He put the food in their mouths? Absolutely not. He provides the food, but they have to go and find it.
In the same way, God provides for the needs of all of His sons and daughters in this world, but that does not release us from the necessity of effort. When Adam and Eve sinned, God told Adam that from this time forward, he was going to eat bread in the sweat of his face. (See Genesis 3:19.) But Jesus teaches us that we are to make Him first, and last, and best in everything. In other words, as Christians, we are not to engage in any business, or follow any pursuit, or seek any pleasure that would hinder the outworking of His righteous character in our lives.
Whatever we do is to be done with seeking God and His righteousness first and uppermost in our mind. You see, friend, God’s everlasting arm encircles every soul who turns to Him for aid, however feeble that soul may be; whether that person is in poverty or wealth, in sickness or health. Whether they are educated or uneducated, simple or wise, all are provided for in the treasures and promises of His grace.
The Bible says that the precious things of this world are going to pass away, but the soul that lives for God will abide with Him. Notice what the apostle John said, commenting on this very same thing, several years later. In I John 2:17 he says, “The world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” So, if you are one of those who learns in this world to lean on God for guidance and wisdom, to seek Him for direction and commit your life to Him, He will not only be your comfort and hope in this world, even amid loss and affliction, but in the world to come you will be welcomed to an everlasting home where the tree of life will yield for you its fruit every month. The literal translation of Isaiah 54:10 says, “The mountains shall depart, the hills be removed, but My kindness will not depart from you, neither will My covenant of peace be removed from you, says the Lord, who has mercy on you.” Because God cares for everyone who turns to Him for help and shields and protects them, we do not need to live a life that is full of worry.
Are you aware, friend, that one of the biggest health problems in the western nations today is depression brought on by continual anxiety and worry? When Jesus lived in this world, He dignified life in all its details by keeping before men the glory of God and by subordinating everything else to the will of His Father. If we follow His example, He gives us the assurance that all things needful for this life shall be added.
He does not promise, by the way, that you will have the luxuries of life in this world. You’ll have more luxuries in the future world than anyone has in this world. In this world, what is promised is what you need, not necessarily what you want. Since you have this promise, if you have committed your life to Him, you do not need to worry. Jesus gives us advice on that very point in the last verse in Matthew 6. He says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (verse 34).
If you have given yourself to God, to do His work, you do not need to worry or be anxious about what is going to happen tomorrow, because, the One, whose servant you are knows the end from the beginning. The Bible says that very clearly in the book of Isaiah, where God says that He knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). So the events of tomorrow, which are hidden from our view, are open to His view; they are open to the eyes of Him who is omnipotent. If we take everything into our own hands, if we decide we want to manage our own life, if we want to depend on our own wisdom for success, then we are taking a burden that God has not given us and we are trying to bear it without His aid. We are taking upon ourselves the responsibility that belongs to God, and thus we are really putting ourselves in His place. Then we may well be anxious and fearful for our needs, but if we really believe that God loves us and means to do us good, we will be able to cease worrying about the future. We will begin to trust God as a small child trusts a loving parent. Then, our troubles and torments will disappear, for our will will be swallowed up in the will of God.
In promising us this kind of help, Jesus did not promise that He would bear the worry or anxiety or burdens of tomorrow. He said to the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you … .” Like the manna that He gave the children of Israel in the wilderness, His grace is bestowed each day for that day’s need. One day alone is ours and during this day we are to live for God.
Just this one day we have to put our hand in the hand of Christ and if we trust Him with everything in our life, our purposes, our plans, casting all our care upon Him, He says, “I know the thoughts that I think toward you, … thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11 KJV). “In returning and rest shall you be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15, literal translation).
Dear friend, if you seek the Lord daily and experience daily conversion, if you will of your own spiritual choice be free and joyous in God, in His service you will find all your murmurings stilled and all your difficulties removed.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church of Free Seventh-day Adventists in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.