Did you know some people “practice” their prayers? (You have to watch the video above for a great story about this!) Particularly when praying in public, some think that they need to pray a “professional” prayer with the “right” tone, the “right” words, and the “right” rhythm. Even while praying in private, fear, worry, or comparison sometimes creep up in people’s minds, prompting questions like, Am I doing this prayer thing right? Is God hearing? What if I say the wrong thing? Should I pray more like them? Thankfully, God does not require the “professional” prayer. Our Father in heaven is not impressed with the sound of our voice, the length of our words, and the repetition in our speech. God desires sincere, humble communication from our heart to His ears.
The prayer God wants is focused on a listening audience of One. He does not want prayers motivated by a desire for attention or shaped by who might hear them and see us. He knows and cares about our motive. Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-6:
“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Notice, the details of their prayer performance had one goal: “that they may be seen of men” (v. 5). They loved to pray the way they prayed because they craved recognition. If that is your goal, you’ll get the short-lived attention from man, but miss out on God seeing, hearing, and honoring your prayer. Every “prayer” is not equal before God. Just because something comes out of your mouth, sounds good, or produces emotion doesn’t mean God is pleased or accepts it. As with everything, it can’t be about our ego; while we pray for ourselves and others, it has to be about Him.
Luke 18:9-14 is a perfect example of this. Jesus told a parable, a story with a lesson, to “certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (v. 9). In Jesus’ parable, we find two men going to the house of God to pray. That seems like a noble goal, right? Outwardly they’re doing the right thing, but the issue that differentiates the two is the inward attitude of their hearts. God is different from us. The Bible records, “the LORD seeth not as man seeth; man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
The first person described was a Pharisee, a religious man, and scripture records, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11-12). What in the world! Everything about this is wrong. Notice, Jesus pointed out he “prayed thus with himself” (v. 11), because he wasn’t praying to God, and his sound was not going beyond the ceiling. This prayer was all about him! He wasted his words before God, talking about how he’s not like other people, claiming his superiority, calling out the publican, proclaiming his fasting and giving, and missing the entire point of prayer! He said he thanked God, but really he used his entire prayer to celebrate himself and demean others. His heart wasn’t right!
On the other hand, the publican, part of the tax-collectors who were known to be sinners and despised by many people for their dishonest practices, also came to pray. His posture and position was entirely different. The Bible says, “the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He didn’t step to God like he deserved it or like he was better than anybody else. He wouldn’t even look up, because he knew he wasn’t worthy. He needed God and his prayer was simple. No fancy words, no elaborate speech, and no performance, but honest and humble communication with God from his heart: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Unsurprisingly, one prayer was effective, and one was not. Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). While the Pharisee exalted himself, trusted he was righteous, and despised others, God heard and answered the prayer of the publican, the sinner, because it wasn’t a “professional” prayer. It was a prayer that came sincerely from his heart, asking for God’s help and knowing he was the one in need. As we pray and communicate with God about where we’re at and where we’re coming from, let’s check our motives and examine our hearts to make sure it’s a prayer that God can receive and respond to.