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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Wrong and Right Spirit of Prayer
Text:LD 45 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 145:1,5                                                                                    

Hy 1

Reading – Matthew 6:1-18; Luke 11:1-13

Ps 86:1,2,3,4

Sermon – Lord’s Day 45

Hy 63:1,2,8

Ps 43:3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters, when we do this last section on prayer in the Catechism classes, we always start with the basics. We have a discussion of what prayer is. It’s communicating with God, the students say. It’s talking to the Lord. You can bring your everyday requests and praise to God. Simple, right? So we can all know how to do it.

Because prayer is communicating with God, we can compare it to how we communicate with each other: your friends, people at church. Probably no one had to teach how to talk to someone else—you just did it. It’s that simple: opening your mouth, sharing your thoughts. You listen and respond.

Yet isn’t it true that sometimes our communication skills need an adjustment? We talk too much. We don’t really listen to other people. We tend to make every conversation about us. What should be a simple activity gets complicated by our selfishness or lack of awareness. So someone has to tap us on the shoulder and correct us.

And it’s the same with prayer. It’s a beautifully simple thing, an amazing privilege—to talk with the LORD—but we sometimes need to adjust what we’re doing. Maybe we’re always making it about us and our needs. We’re not listening to God. Or our prayers lack sincerity. In short, we sometimes get it wrong. In Romans 8, Paul admits this: “We do not know what we ought to pray for” (v 26). We’re always in need of instruction.

Which means we have to go back to passages like Luke 11. The Lord Jesus was praying, and the disciples were struck by something in his manner of prayer. For “when He ceased…one of his disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’” (v 1). Show us how it’s done!

It makes me wonder what stood out when they listened to Jesus pray. What were they hearing? It must have been things like his openness and honesty with the Father. His intensity, maybe. His love for God. His love for other people. There was something in Jesus’s prayers that the disciples wanted for themselves, because they realized how their own prayers were lacking.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” That’s our request too. And Christ gives lots of direction. We learn (again) that prayer isn’t meant to be hard or complicated—any child of God can pray! And we must pray, for it’s our lifeline to God our Father. This is what we see in LD 45,

Lord, teach us how to pray. We’ll see:

  1. the wrong spirit for prayer, and its result
  2. the right spirit for prayer, and its result


1) the wrong spirit for prayer, and its result: When Jesus teaches about prayer in Matthew 6, He shares the powerful words of the Lord’s Prayer. It is not an elaborate prayer, just six basic petitions. It’s not more than seventy words in most English translations, takes less than a minute to say—yet somehow it is complete and powerful.

But notice how before Jesus teaches his prayer, He does a bit of troubleshooting, offers some corrections on our prayer life. That’s useful, we said, because otherwise we’ll miss out on ways that our communication with God could improve.

The warning at the beginning of chapter 6 sets the tone: “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them” (v 1). Our religious habits and customs should never be about our own praise and reputation. Whether it’s giving generous amounts of money or fasting for a day, Jesus knows we can slip into making an empty show of things. We could attend worship every Sunday, not because God is our highest joy, but because otherwise we’ll get family pressure or elder pressure. We could open our Bibles at the end of dinner time, because that’s just what we do. Have we thought about why we’re doing it?

The same thing can happen to our prayers. Jesus warns in verse 5, “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.”

In the time of Christ, some people were praying to be recognized. They’d love the opportunity to stand in the synagogue and offer a prayer. Everyone in the congregation who listened would surely be impressed by their piety and eloquence. But such praying is a charade; it’s empty. Such praying seeks personal glory, not glory for God.

Jesus also condemns those who’d stop to pray on a street corner. For as people went about their day, the time came for one of the regular prayers, morning and evening. They could find a quiet spot somewhere, but instead, they made sure everyone knew they were honouring the tradition of prayer. Even if it meant that they had to stop on a busy sidewalk or in the middle of the marketplace, they’d offer their prayer: “to be seen by men.”

We probably can’t relate to that desire for other people to hear or to see our prayers. A good many of us prefer not to pray in public! We get all shaky about it, and our words get tied up in knots. So maybe Jesus’s warning doesn’t apply.

But it’s still very possible to let prayer become something that is empty, just in a different way than the Jews did. Even in the comfort of our dining room after dinner, or in the privacy of our bedroom at 11 o’clock at night, the same danger is present: that we’re praying in the wrong spirit. Maybe we’re doing it out of force of habit, or because others expect us to pray.

And then there’s the reality of our prayers to God sounding the same, from day to day, year after year. All of us—I’m quite sure—fall into using the same old phrases. It’s easier, because these words just roll off the tongue. Or when we’re praying silently, our mind slips into the familiar grooves of a prayer that we’ve offered many times before. It’s hard to get out of that.

Now, it doesn’t mean that these prayers of ours are necessarily wrong. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t pleased with our prayer today, if it’s roughly the same as it was yesterday. For just think of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the same every time we pray it, just how Jesus taught us. Prayed from the heart, these repeated and familiar words do please God!

But we should always be ready to ask ourselves a hard question: Why are we praying? Are we doing it because of a desire to commune with our God? I pray over my bowl of granola because I want to thank the Lord for his gift of food at the start of the day. I pray in the evening because I see the ways that I have sinned again and want to seek God’s forgiveness. But then again, I know that sometimes these prayers are empty ‘thank yous’ and empty ‘forgive mes.’

I’m afraid that there are other negative things we could say about our praying, more faults we could find. Just consider how we might neglect prayer outside of the regular times we’re used to. It is good to pray at those expected moments, but where’s the rest of our communion with God? When do we come before him? How often should we?

Consider how many of us make it a priority to stay in close contact with our friends from morning ‘til evening. We’ve got to make sure that we’re always connected. Sending instant messages, posting updates, checking out what people have written to us. It’s probably the first thing that many of us do when we wake up in the morning: check our messages, see who’s been in touch, see what we’ve missed.

But what about our connection to God? Have we kept up communication with him throughout the day? Have we maintained the dialogue with diligence? Or has faded into silence? Sometimes we put God on hold until we have a moment, just before we fall asleep, when really, He should be the first one we want to get in touch with when we wake up in the morning!

In his sermon, Jesus offers a second warning: “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think they will be heard for their many words” (v 7). Those listening to Jesus were probably a bit insulted by these words, for He dares to compare the prayers of God’s people with the prayers of pagans!

That’s because whenever they started a prayer, the heathens would recite long lists of gods. It’d be like sending an email to everyone in your contacts—if you called on enough gods, maybe one of them would hear and answer. And so pagans would go on and on, babbling to whomever would listen, hoping something would land on target.

Instead of using “many words,” like Jesus says, some of our prayers are very short. And that can be a good thing. We pray just a few words for his guidance in those moments before a difficult meeting. We ask for God’s help in a few seconds of panic. We make a brief offering of praise when we stand amazed by God’s glory.

And Jesus isn’t saying either that it’s wrong to have long prayers. I’m sure that you’ve found that sometimes there’s just so many things to pray about! You want to pray for loved ones, for fellow church members, your friends, the leaders of our country, our missionaries, the poor, the suffering… It’s good to have eyes open for many needs and blessings, and it’s good that we want to bring them all before God.

Yet our prayers might be long, and wrong. Jesus calls it “vain repetitions.” For we go on and on because we’re praying about so many of our worries and requests. And again it’s true that we’re allowed to bring these things before the Lord! Even our little worries, the things we’re embarrassed about, the things everyone else would think are silly—even these we can present to God: “all things we need for body and soul” (Q&A 118). We can pray for whatever God has promised in his Word. And we should feel free to present them to him, for we know that we have a loving Father who listens and who cares.

But when we pray, remember that our Father listens to a child who is humble in her requests, not one who heaps up repetitions. He loves a believer who remembers to be thankful for all the things already received. The Father listens to the child who is confident in his gracious answer. The Catechism says, “God will give his grace and the Holy Spirit only to those who [pray] constantly, and with heartfelt longing” (Q&A 116). You can pray for a short moment, or you can pray for a long time, but you do need to pray in faith and humility.

I know that sometimes we think there’s no such thing as a poor prayer. We think, “God’s just happy to hear from us! He’s not going to turn us away.” Our God is merciful and patient. He’s an understanding and compassionate Father. But we really can’t expect God to hear our prayers if they are half-hearted or offered merely out of a sense of obligation. Remember what the Catechism teaches us about “what belongs to a prayer which pleases God.” The first thing it says is that “We must from the heart call upon the one true God” (Q&A 117).

Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone who wasn’t really paying attention. The person was either interrupting you, looking over your shoulder at someone else, or they were going on about themselves the whole time—until they just walked away, without so much as a word of parting. What a nice conversation! Can we expect our God to accept us if we essentially do the same thing in our prayers, if we pray in a distracted spirit, or if we pray only to get what we want? No, that is not true communion with God. There’s a better way. So for our prayers, He’s given us a pattern. That brings us to our second point,


2) the right spirit for prayer, and its result: By now it’s clear that there’s a wrong spirit to pray, and a right spirit. And Jesus gives us a clear example of what is right, in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a model of simplicity, of God-centered praise, of humbleness and completeness.

Speaking of the Lord’s Prayer, some people have wondered about those two passages we read. The one prayer is found in the Sermon on the Mount. But notice that the other version from Luke 11 comes up in a different setting altogether. It’s not part of a public sermon, but when the disciples ask Jesus privately for a lesson in prayer.

Is there a contradiction? When was the Lord’s Prayer really taught? I think there’s a simple answer: Jesus taught his prayer more than once. And probably even more than twice! For this was the perfect pattern. Instead of entering prayer in a thoughtless or distracted way, Jesus teaches us to come before God in humility and awe.

We pray, “Our Father, who is in heaven.” Like the Catechism says, we begin with “childlike reverence and trust” (Q&A 120). Try to begin your prayers by first recognizing and revering the Almighty God, the One who created the heavens and the earth, calling on him who has become our Father in Jesus Christ.

Then, right away, we make that petition for God’s glory to be revealed and promoted in all the earth: “Hallowed be your Name.” We should pray every day that we experience his glory and have a living sense of his holiness and majesty. And pray that you might bring honour to this great God in all you do. 

The next petition follows closely: “Your Kingdom come.” We should pray with the awareness that this life is not just about us and our concerns. It’s actually much bigger, for God is leading his kingdom in daily war against the kingdom of darkness. Pray every day then, that God would destroy Satan’s works in this world: “Your Kingdom come.”

Jesus also teaches us to pray that “God’s will be done.” If we’re honest about that petition, it’s nothing less than a prayer that our hearts reverse directions and alter their ambitions. For naturally, we said, we put ourselves and our own will first. We don’t want to sacrifice. We don’t want to worship the true God.

That’s why Jesus warns us: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). We need to make this our daily prayer, “Father, may your will be done. Help me to deny myself and deny the sinful desires always moving within me. Help me accept your claim on my life. Teach me your will and help me to do it.”

“And give us today our daily bread.” Don’t forget to pray for your physical needs. Even if you assume you’ll have these gifts tomorrow, pray for food in the pantry and clothing in the closet and gas for your car. For what we earn, and possess, and consume, are all things given by God. As you pray, trust that God will provide, for the Father is rich, and He delights to give gifts.

He’ll even cleanse us from sin when we ask. Our Lord taught us to pray: “Forgive us our debts.” This is another petition that is hard to pray sincerely. For if I don’t recognize my daily sins—my character weaknesses, my besetting temptations, my acts of rebellion—I’ll have nothing to confess to God but vague generalities. But if I sense a bit of my sinfulness, I’ll know that I need to seek God’s mercy. Look within, and then look to Christ!

In the same breath, Jesus teaches us to ask for spiritual strength: “Lead us not into temptation.” How badly we need God’s help in this! Satan’s an experienced predator, and he has many allies. We are confronted every day with Satan’s power, but God is stronger.

That’s why Jesus teaches us to end our prayers with praise: “For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.” There’s no need for any doubt about the God to whom we’ve spoken. We’re at the right address with our prayers, for He is able.

Right after teaching the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11, Jesus illustrates God’s willingness to answer us: “If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?” (vv 11-12). Of course not. Parents are deeply committed to their children—they’d do pretty well anything for their well-being. They will try to give what is needful!

So for God our Father. As Jesus says, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (v 13). When we pray in faith, the Father will answer, for He’s faithful, gracious, and abounding in love. He’ll surely give what is good, and He will give what is right.

All this makes the true prayer one filled with thanksgiving. God knows there’s nothing we can ever give to him in return. So He commands us to be thankful. It’s his will that gratitude becomes the holy hallmark of every Christian. The Catechism says, “God will give his grace and the Holy Spirit…to those who…ask Him for these gifts and thank him for them” (Q&A 116). So every new day we have an opportunity to say to God how much we appreciate all that He’s given. It’s a spirit of thankfulness that can be constant: “Father, thank you for everything.”

So before rushing into your prayer after breakfast, or instead of melting into prayer at the same time as you melt into sleep, find a way to slow it down. Do your utmost to remember what you’re doing as you speak with God and come into his presence. Begin with humility and praise and thanksgiving. Make your prayers a time lean ever harder on the LORD for everything you need: for grace and mercy, health and strength, for wisdom and holiness.

And as you pray, remember, it’s not lengthiness that God is seeking. It’s not eloquence in every word and phrase. It’s not completeness, each and every time. When you pray, don’t make it harder or more complicated than it is, such that you never get around to it or don’t dare to begin. For prayer is you committing all good things to your Father, and doing so because you know that He is God, and because you want to honour him above all.

What’s the result of such kinds of prayer? That may be the wrong question. I used the word “results” in my theme and points, but let’s not misunderstand that. Prayer to God is not about results as such. It’s not about getting the thing that you were hoping for, finding the right answer to your question. Of course we love it when our prayers seem to have that effect: when we get the exam mark we were praying for, when the doctor comes back with a good report on our health, or when we get promoted, just as we prayed. We like those results!

But our prayers should have a different focus, a more personal touch. It’s not about results, but relationship. The heart of prayer isn’t about what we get, it’s about who we get. We get God, the warmth of his love and fellowship and grace. Prayer is about enjoying communion with God. When we pray to him in the morning, we’re glad to draw near the Lord once again. And when we pray in the evening, we’re glad to have been able to commit our lives to his care.

Such prayers will be pleasing to God, and they will be heard by God. This is because our loving Father knows us deeply. Far better than we know, He knows the things we need. Yet God wants us to ask. And a heartfelt prayer He will not ignore. The prayer of faith will never go unanswered, but “God will certainly hear our prayer for the sake of Christ our Lord” (Q&A 117).

This is how Jesus taught us to pray. So let’s be people who not only know prayer, but who do prayer. May our first reaction, our reflex, our constant inclination, be to call on the Name of God. Be busy every day asking, seeking, knocking—praying to your heavenly Father and expecting good things from him, for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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