I am convinced that a great many of us in the church today feel inadequate about prayer. We know that we ought to be spending more time in prayer than we actually are, we know that we ought to be praying with greater fervency and eloquence, and we know that we ought to be praying more frequently in public gatherings. While I am sure that there are a variety of reasons that would explain why we struggle in these ways, I am also sure that at least one of the most fundamental reasons is that we do not know how to pray. As I think back on my own experience, that was certainly true for me. For many years as a Christian, I felt overwhelmed and intimidated when it came to prayer, especially prayer in front of others, because I did not know how to pray.

The same can apparently be said for at least many of Jesus’ disciples in the first century as well. Maybe Jesus noticed how infrequently His disciples were praying. Maybe He heard their feeble attempts. We know from Luke’s gospel that they asked Jesus to teach them (Luke 11:2). Whatever the case, it is obvious that Jesus knew His disciples needed to be taught how to pray, because that is precisely what He does in Matthew 6:5–15.

The fact that Jesus saw the need to teach His disciples how to pray should encourage those of us who struggle to pray. Our struggles are not unique or unusual but are common in the church at large. That is not to condone them but simply to acknowledge that we are not alone in struggling in this way. Jesus anticipated that His disciples would struggle and sought to remedy the situation by teaching them (and us) how to pray.

In Matthew 6:5–15, Jesus gives five characteristics that should distinguish our prayers. When we pray, He says, we ought to pray (1) from our hearts, (2) with our minds, (3) according to the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, (4) continually, and (5) in light of our salvation. We will look briefly at each in turn.

From Our Hearts

One of the things that keeps us from praying, especially in public, is that we become overly concerned about using the right words. But the first thing I want us to see is that God is less concerned about the words we use and far more concerned that our prayers come from our hearts. We see that clearly in Matthew 6:5–8 in two main ways.

We see it first in in Jesus’ condemnation of the “hypocrites” who “stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners” (vv. 5–6). Rather than condemning all forms of public prayer here, as some have erroneously concluded, Jesus is actually expressing His concern about our motives in prayer. The hypocrites love to pray in public places so that they can be seen by others. In other words, their hearts are not right. Their motives in praying are altogether selfish, for they want to be seen (and praised) by others. Interestingly, many of us do not pray in public today for the same reason that the hypocrites did in the first century: we care too much about what people think. Our hearts are not right.

We see Jesus’ concern that we pray from our hearts a second time when our Lord condemns the “Gentiles” for “heap[ing] up empty phrases” and thinking that they will be heard for their “many words” (vv. 7–8). The point here is not that long prayers are wrong. Jesus Himself on several occasions spent extended periods of time in prayer during the course of His public ministry (e.g., Matt. 14:23–24; 26:40–44; Luke 6:12). The point is instead that empty or heartless prayers are wrong. The gentiles were heaping up “empty phrases.” They thought that they would be heard just because they prayed long and verbose prayers. But they were only uttering empty words. Their hearts were not engaged in what they were doing.

We tend to think of prayer as a way to draw down blessings from God. But Jesus thinks of it as a way to draw us up to God.

This means that prayer requires us to do some amount of preparation so that we can ensure our hearts are engaged in the process. We need to spend time beforehand thinking about what we are doing and why and about what Jesus has done to grant us access to God in the first place. And then we need to let that fuel our praying.

With Our Minds

But Jesus does not want our prayers to be filled only with sentimentality or mindless drivel. That is why in Matthew 6:9–13 He gives His followers words and concepts to use. He says that we should ask for certain things and use a certain order or structure in our praying. To be sure, our prayers should flow from the heart, but they should also engage the mind. Abraham’s prayer in Genesis 18 makes an argument to the Lord based on the fact that God is just. Moses’ prayer, after the occasion of the golden calf in Exodus 32:11–14, shows a similar emphasis on logic and on providing rationale to God. And Jehoshaphat’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 20 makes a threefold argument based on the character of God and His past actions with His people in order to beseech Him to hear and to answer in the present. Even though a lot more could be said, this should be enough for us to see that prayer is meant to be a thinking enterprise, not just a heartfelt one.

According to the Pattern of the Lord’s Prayer

Much could be said here as well, but the main point we need to see is that Jesus starts His prayer with God. We see that in Matthew 6:9–10. Before He ever turns His attention to supplication for personal needs, Jesus concentrates His prayer on the Lord and the things pertaining to Him. In other words, Jesus’ prayer has a Godward focus to it. Our prayers, however, tend to begin and end with ourselves and our own needs.

This tells us that Jesus looks at prayer differently than we do. We tend to think of prayer as a way to draw down blessings from God. But Jesus thinks of it as a way to draw us up to God. We think of prayer as supplication for the things we need. But Jesus thinks of it first as adoration and communion. We struggle to spend even a few minutes in prayer because we run out of things to say (since most of us don’t have that many needs). But Jesus could spend all night in prayer—as He did on at least two occasions (Matt. 14:23–25; Luke 6:12)—because He was doing more than simply asking for things. He was communing with His heavenly Father. We miss that because we see the most important element of prayer as supplication rather than adoration. But the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer teaches us something different.


Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:11 that we should pray for “our daily bread,” not for a two-week or even a two-day supply. This clearly implies that we should be praying every day. Jesus is thus advocating a view of prayer that sees it not as peripheral to the Christian life but as central to it. Prayer is just as fundamental for the Christian as eating or drinking or any other activity that must be done every day of our lives. We must pray continually—or, as Paul said, “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)—just as we must also eat, drink, and breathe continually.

Part of the reason why Jesus advocates continual prayer is because prayer, by its very nature, is an acknowledgement of our dependence on God. When we pray, we are declaring both to ourselves and to God that we cannot provide for ourselves and that we need God to step in and provide for us. Jesus recognized that this kind of continual declaration is vital for our persevering in the Christian life. Without it, we are likely to grow self-reliant and cold toward God. We need the constant reminder as Christians that we are to live each day by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Continual prayer does that for us.

In Light of Our Salvation

I find it interesting that Jesus never uses the first-person singular pronouns “I,” “me,” or “my” in His prayer but that He uses the first-person plural “we,” “us,” or “our” ten times (in the Greek; nine times in the ESV). He instructs Christians not to call God “my” Father when they pray but rather “our” Father. He charges them not to pray that God would give “me” the daily bread that “I” need and forgive “me” all of “my” sins, but that God would give “us” that daily bread and forgive “us” all “our” sins. In doing this, Jesus is reminding us that when we pray we are to pray in light of our salvation, which is a corporate salvation. Jesus did not bear the guilt of only my own sins in His body on the cross—He bore the guilt of all the sins of all who would ever believe in Him, which, the Bible says, is such a “great multitude” that no one will be able to count them all (Rev. 7:9).

When we realize the incredible scope of what Jesus accomplished on the cross—not just for each individual Christian but for all that great multitude—it ought to make the cross take on even greater significance in our lives. And this in turn should affect our prayer life, because, generally speaking, the more significant the cross becomes in our experience, the more significant will be our prayer life. We will pray more often and for longer periods of time. We will pray more earnestly and with greater power. We will enjoy prayer more, and we will begin to understand how saints of old such as Charles Simeon could be so caught up in communion with Christ and so overcome with the degree of mercy they received in Christ that they could be rendered speechless as they reveled in the glory of their great God and King.

When these characteristics distinguish our prayer, we will not only pray more frequently and more earnestly, but we will also begin to pray more often in public. Then, and only then, will we have any chance of hearing people say of us what they said of John Knox, namely, that they feared his prayers more than any invading army. Oh, that it would be so today!

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