Community Group Study Guide — A Simple Way to Pray
For many of us, prayer simultaneously feels simple and complex. We have access to our heavenly father as a most beloved child would to the most tender and loving parent. God invites us to praise him, petition for his help and bring all of our needs before him. Yet on the other side, we struggle to wonder how prayer “works”, if God hears us, how God responds to prayer and many of us are unsatisfied in our prayer life. Most of us feel like we do not pray enough or “the right way”. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exposes how our human hearts can take something good like prayer and miss the point. Yes it is good to pray more and we should not be flippant in how we approach God. However, we receive an invitation from Jesus here to delight in God in the way we talk with him… which is prayer. Jesus even goes so far as to give us a framework, though not a formula, for prayer in the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s explore this:
This section is exploring the danger of practicing your righteousness to be seen by others (Matthew 6:1). Jesus’ point is that if you seek the rewards of people and desire to impress them, you will miss out on praise from God and the rewards that he gives. Our righteousness is not to be used to selfish gain, but should be used to please God, bless others and help us grow in spiritual maturity. Jesus takes this principle and applies it to prayer in Matthew 6:5-8 and by doing so he warns us of two misuses of prayer.
First, prayer is not an opportunity to focus on yourself. Matthew 6:5 tells us that the “hypocrites” (who we looked at in the last study guide) used prayer as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on themselves. They would stand in the street or synagogue and pray so that they may be seen by others. Again, motivation is important to note, they were motivated by the idea of being seen. Public prayer became an opportunity for self-righteousness. We do not know the context here, like if they were praying loudly or quietly or out of order in the synagogue worship. However, whatever they were doing drew attention to themselves and not to God. A danger when we pray publicly is that we can use it to impress others with what or how we say something. Indeed many of us struggle to pray in a group, especially as newer believers, because we are afraid of something something wrong… we are aware that others are listening and possibly assessing our spiritual maturity by how we pray publicly. Public prayer is a great tool for us to be led to praise God along with others and help others petition God, but again our attention should be on God and not ourselves or one another. Jesus then directs our hearts to the value of private prayer, Matthew 6:5 “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret”. This is not a prohibition on praying publicly, but a recognition that private prayer is core to our prayer life and will fuel any sort of public prayer we have. Public prayer without regular private prayer is hypocrisy.
Second, prayer is not an opportunity to manipulate God. Sometimes we approach prayer with superstition rather than faith. We think that if we say the right words in the right way for the right amount of time then we will be heard by God. Apparently those who did not follow God in the 1st century practiced something similar. They thought they’d be heard for their many words (Matthew 6:7). They would “heap up” empty phrases; meaning they would throw up words without really meaning them and use buzz words or phrases to try and catch God’s attention. Today we may pray and instead of being vulnerable, open and fully trusting of God we come to him with the right sounding words or big word theological language thinking that if we say the right thing he will hear us. You do not need to manipulate God, nor should you even try. Instead we are given certainty that God will hear us because he already knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8). God’s all knowing nature and his gracious care of us ought to motivate us to go to him with all of our needs with real, simple and honest prayer.
Jesus gives this crowd (and us) a framework and not a formula for how to pray and like many things in the Sermon on the Mount this was revolutionary for someone in the ancient world to hear. Stop and read through Matthew 6:9-13 and notice first what this prayer says about God and what we are told to pray about.
As Martin Luther said, Jesus gives us “a simple way to pray”.
First, the prayer directs our attention to God. Matthew 6:9 highlights our infinite yet personal God. To call God “father” in the 1st century would have felt highly inappropriate, yet not only does Jesus use the term for God but he invites his followers to do the same. We have access to God as a beloved child. But, notice where God is and who he is. God is infinite. He sits enthroned in heaven and his name is holy. We have intimacy and accessibility to this holy, sovereign and transcendent God. Many of us struggle to keep both of those things in mind and we default to focusing on one at the expense of the other.
Second, the prayer invites us to surrender our wills to God. Followers of Jesus are invited to pray that God’s heavenly rule and reign would be realized on earth. It is God’s kingdom and God’s will and not our kingdom and our will that we are to pray for. This is an invitation to surrender to God’s rule and God’s ways. This does not mean that we cannot ask God or petition God to act, yet we start out by reminding ourselves of whom we follow and it in turn helps us to see everything else in light of God’s holy name as he rules in and through his people to make the earth more like his dwelling place – heaven.
Third, bring your needs to God. Matthew 6:11-13 are all examples of bringing your needs to God. We can pray for our daily bread which means even the basic things of our lives are not out of the realm of God’s care. Praying to God about our basic needs, asking God to supply them and even asking for him to direct us with who to use them are all key to our private prayer life. It has probably been a while since you’ve prayed about your grocery list, items in your closet or home but you’re invited to bring those things to God and ask for him to supply them and use them for his kingdom’s sake. We can likewise present our spiritual needs to God. Key to our prayer is a recognition of our sin, which is confession, and the reminder of God’s gracious forgiveness and reconciliation offered to us through faith in Jesus. This should spill over into followers of Jesus being quick to forgive and reconcile, and praying for the strength to do so if they are struggling to. Finally, there is the aspect of our daily need to fight sin and evil in our lives. It is clear in scripture that God will not lead any of us into temptation. This petition in the Lord’s prayer recognizes that, but moreover is reminding us to ask for strength to resist and a reminder that we are not abandoned when tempted but instead God desires to graciously lead us to holiness.
When you think about your prayer life, do you fall into the trap of using prayer as a tool for self promotion or manipulation? Do you struggle with seeing prayers as something you “need to do” or as something you’re just not “good at”. God desires something greater for us and we would do well to remember that prayer is not something that we receive a grade for. Instead prayer is praising God for who he is, bringing our needs to God and an opportunity for greater love and relationship with God to develop. Jesus motivates us by telling us that God invites us to call him father and we have a God who already knows what we need before we ask.
Prayer is a gracious gift that God has given his people to know him more. We are invited to pray to God as both our father and our holy king. This will entail praising God for who he is, surrendering our will to his as we seek his kingdom and bringing to him our daily needs.
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Matthew 6:5-13
What is the role of public prayer in our spiritual lives? What is the role of private prayer?
Jesus is speaking against the misuse of prayer for personal gain. How was prayer misused in the 1st century? What are some modern ways people can misuse prayer?
How does the Lord’s Prayer highlight God’s power and his personal/relatable character?
What kinds of things does this prayer encourage us to pray? Have you used the Lord’s prayer as a guide before in your private prayer? If so, how did that help or what did you learn from doing that?