Here are some of the most important things that Jesus taught concerning communicating with God. You know, we were created to talk to God and hear God talk to us. You would not like to have a child that is both deaf and dumb. Nobody would like to have such a child, who doesn’t speak and cannot hear. The Bible says that we are made in the likeness of God and the same desire that we have, as fathers and mothers for our children, God also has in a much greater measure. He does not want to have children that are deaf and dumb – that can’t hear what He is saying and that never speak to Him. Are you one of those deaf and dumb Christians who never speak to your Father? Who never hears what the Father has to say to you? Well, I want to say, if you are, you have missed a great deal of a Christian life.
God doesn’t force us to listen to Him or to speak to Him, just like we don’t force our children to speak to us. We are delighted when they on their own are eager to speak to us. So what the Bible calls prayer is not a ritual. It is not something that we perform by repeating certain things to God. It is certainly not something like a mantra. Far from it, it is a child speaking to a father. In the gospel of Matthew 6:5, Jesus was telling His disciples how they should pray and how they should communicate with God. He said, when you pray, the important thing is not the content of your prayer as much as the state of your heart. That is why Jesus didn’t place an emphasis on certain words to be said, instead He said, make sure that you don’t pray like the hypocrites.
Now the word hypocrite means actor. You know an actor is one who gets on the stage and pretends to be somebody which he is not in real life. In real life he may be a drunkard, but on the stage he can act like a holy man. There are a lot of religious hypocrites like that. Their stage is the church meeting room or hall. When they come to the church meeting on Sunday, they are dressed up to act as holy people. The whole thing is a drama. They pray, they preach, they do so many things, but when they go back from that stage, which is the church and the meeting hall, they become their own selves again. They live the same old lives they lived before. Just like, if you went to the house of an actor and you discover that he is not behaving in the same way in his house like he behaved on the stage, you are not surprised, because you know that he was acting there and here he is a real person. That is how it is with a lot of Christians. In the church they are acting; they are singing songs of great devotion to God which they don’t really mean in their life. When they come home, they are their real person. It is that type of thing which Jesus condemned the most.
You and I would think that the greatest sins are murder, adultery, theft, etc., but Jesus placed another sin on top of all of these and that was hypocrisy – acting, pretending to be holy when you are not really holy. If you read the teaching of Jesus, in the gospels, you will find that He condemned this type of religious acting more than He condemned adultery, or murder, or anything else. We read in the gospels of women who were adulteress, whom Jesus didn’t condemn. They were repentant and Jesus saved them. There was a murderer hanging next to Jesus, who got saved and went to heaven, because he repented. You will never find Jesus condemning the murderers because they already know it is wrong and everybody in the world know it is wrong. Not that those things are not sins, but they are so obvious that everybody knows it is wrong.
Why did Jesus condemn the hypocrites? – Because they were giving people the impression that they were very holy when they were not. That is what Jesus hated and detested and spoke against. He called such people vipers and people who are ready to go to hell. To whom did Jesus condemn to hell, first of all? Not the murderers, prostitutes and thieves, but the hypocrites and we could say today, the people who go to church and pretend so holy, but don’t live at home the way they act when they go to church. Here (Matthew 6), Jesus speaks about hypocrites – actors in relation to praying. So He tells His disciples, ‘Before I tell you how to pray, you need to learn how you should not pray, because, even if you say the right words, if your heart’s attitude is like that of a hypocrite’s, God will not hear you.’
Prayer is like a telephone call. When you dial a number, you wait until the other person has heard you. That means he picks up the phone and you make sure he can hear and only then you speak. In the same way, when we pray to God, that is when we talk to God, it is exactly like talking on a telephone. The first thing you have to be sure of is that God is listening – that He can hear you. Because, if He is not hearing you, what is the use of speaking? What is the use of speaking on the telephone if there is nobody at the other end of the line? Have you thought of that? Do you ever think that prayer is like speaking on a telephone? In a telephone call, you speak to a human being, in prayer you talk to God. In a telephone call, you listen to what the other person is saying to you and in prayer you should be listening to what God is saying to you as well.
For many people prayer is only talking. Usually it is not even talking, it is just asking God to give you this and give you that, and give your family this and give your family that. That is it. Just like a long shopping list. You go to the market with a shopping list that your wife has given to buy, a list of things. Similarly, you go to God with a list and say, ‘Lord, give all of this to me.’ That is not really prayer.
What would you think of a child who only wants to talk to his father when he wants to get something from him? ‘Now buy me a chocolate, or buy me this, or buy me that, or get me that.’ That is the only time the child wants to talk to his father. Would you be happy with such a child? As soon as the child comes to you, you know he is asking for something. He is not interested in any other conversation with you, neither is he interested in listening to you. He just wants to ask you for something and if you give that to him, he is happy. A lot of Christians are like that. I want to say that, just like you would not like to have a child like that, God is not happy with His children who are like that.
So prayer is more than just asking, it is communicating. It is talking and listening to God and enjoying your time together. For many people, prayer is a boring thing, because they have not understood what it really is. So, if we take what Jesus spoke in this passage seriously, it can change our whole lives. The first thing he said is, “Don’t act’’. When you come to pray, don’t pray in order to be seen by men. Instead, He said, ‘‘When you pray, go into your inner room and when you shut your door, pray to you Father who is in secret and your Father who’s in secret will repay you’’(Mat. 6:6).
So the first thing He said, that religious actors would do is, that they want to show other people how holy they are. One way they do that is by letting other people know that they are praying a lot. Do you let other people know that you are praying a lot? There are some people who are so shy that they never pray in public. That is one extreme. You will find others at the other extreme, who always want to pray long boring prayers in public. Who are they praying to? They are not praying to God. They are praying to impress all the other people in the meeting.
It will be a good thing, if you ask yourself next time, or any time you pray in public, whether that is exactly what you pray in private also. For example, supposing you are praying in public, ‘Oh God, I want a lot of people to be converted and to have faith in You in this country and I pray for the millions of people in India who need to hear the gospel’. Ask yourself, do you have that same burden of prayer when you are all by yourself in your room or do you pray those things only when you are in public, in a meeting, to impress other people that you are a very spiritual person? That is acting.
Acting is praying in the presence of others as though you have a great burden but not really having that burden in your heart. It could be praying in very flowery impressive language and trying to show off to others what a wonderful prayer you make. God is not impressed at all. These are the areas in which we can pray only for men to hear. If you have done that before (if we are honest, we all have to admit to having done it), go home from such a meeting and say, ‘Lord forgive me, I have sinned. My prayer was a sinful prayer because I offered it to man. Please forgive me’. If you do that, you will find that next time you can pray more sincerely to God.
This is part of the Basic Christian Teachings Series, a set of 72 short messages presented by Zac Poonen. You can download the audio mp3 files or listen to Basic Christian Teachings by clicking here.