Matthew 6:9-13, KJV
Jesus was teaching His disciples how to pray. He gave them the prayer known to Christians worldwide as “the Lord’s Prayer,” also known as the “Our Father.” He said (vs. 9, NLT), “Pray like this.” And then Jesus taught them this beloved prayer, and it can be spoken aloud in about 22 seconds! What! 22 seconds to summarize the Lord’s teaching on prayer?
Verses 9-13 are taught in churches and Sunday schools around the world. But its context in verse 7 is rarely taught. Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not heap up phrases (multiply words, repeating the same ones over and over) as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their much speaking” (vs. 7, Amplified Classic). How interesting. Jesus was encouraging His disciples not to be wordy or long-winded in their prayers. It is an error, He said, to expect that our “much speaking” is what causes our prayers to be heard on high. That was wrong thinking that Jesus had observed in many Gentiles’ prayers.
Jesus remarked also, with disfavor, that the Jewish teachers of the law would “for a show make lengthy prayers” (Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47). To me it’s remarkable that our Lord, in committing to us the beloved Lord’s Prayer as the foundation of our prayer life, gave us a pattern that we can reverently pray in 22 seconds! (I timed it) Let me add something here, though, lest my words be misunderstood. This same 22-second prayer, when prayed slowly and reverently, with pauses over each phrase, can easily expand into devotional prayer times of a half hour or more. I’ve experienced this often. I’ll start with “Our Father in heaven…” and pause right there to ponder the greatness of that truth. I thank the Lord for being my Father. I allow Him to speak to me what He wants to impress upon my heart at that moment concerning His being my loving, caring Father. There’s no hurry; just revel in the presence of your heavenly Father. Then when you are ready, move on to “hallowed by thy name…” Reflect on the greatness of what His name and Jesus’ name mean in your life. And continue on through the full prayer. You’ll experience input from God, along with your petitions to God.
So no, I’m not at all saying to pray daily only for 22 seconds. No! To the contrary, Jesus did not say, “Let your prayer time or your prayers be few.” What He did say was not to think we are “heard for [our] much speaking.” In the specific context of prayer, Jesus in similar words invoked the broader message of Ecclesiastes 5:2 — “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” [emphasis on your]. In my times of prayer, I enjoy being in God’s presence and hearing His quiet voice in my spirit as much or more than I enjoy my own speaking to Him.
By now you might be asking: “If my words are few in prayer, then how can I fulfill such Scriptures as the apostle Paul’s exhortation to ‘pray continually’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17) or Jesus’ words to His disciples: ‘Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour? … Watch and pray…’?” (Matthew 26:40-41) The answer is that prayer is a dialogue with God, not a monologue only of you talking to God. In prayer times you can and should pause for reflection, for meditation, for listening to God’s Holy Spirit, for worship, for seeking to experience God’s presence. Yes, we are encouraged to “pray continually.” But don’t just fill the air with words, wrongly believing that we are “heard for our much speaking.” Speak to the Lord, certainly. But spend much time opening your soul and spirit to listen to God, to experience His presence, to “hear what the Spirit says” (Revelation 2:7, plus 6 more times in Revelation). Yes indeed, prayer is a dialogue. God wants to hear from you. But of equal or greater importance is you hearing from Him.
Let me give another compelling example of brief, highly effective prayers. In 1 Kings 18:16-40 we see the great prophet Elijah taking God’s side against 450 prophets of Baal. It was a trial by fire. First Baal’s prophets, then Elijah, would make an altar and place the wood and sacrifices on it. Then they would call on their respective gods/God to consume the sacrifices by heaven-sent fire. The demon god Baal’s 450 prophets went first. For hours they shouted, danced, cut themselves until they bled, and called on Baal to send fire. Nothing happened after all those hours of frenzied effort.
Then God’s prophet Elijah prayed an 18 second prayer (I timed it): “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:36-37). Immediately God’s fire from heaven fell and entirely consumed the sacrifices, the altar, and even the soil and the water in the trenches. The astounded, repenting Israelites cried out (39), “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” The false prophets of Baal had expended frantic energy for hours attempting to get their demon gods to reply, but to no avail. Then God’s prophet prayed aloud in their hearing for less than 20 seconds, and God responded with the mighty sign of consuming fire from heaven. Elijah's words were few, but his faith was large! The message is clear. God did not hear Elijah for his “much speaking,” but rather for his deep faith in God and his courage to call upon God before those pagan prophets in a short, clear, God-glorifying prayer.
Please allow me one more illustration in closing. It has to do with another spiritual issue, prophecy, and gives an example of avoiding long-windedness in prophesying. Acts 13:1-4 lists 5 named ministers in the local church at Antioch. Two of the five were Barnabas and Saul (later called Paul). Verses 2-4 tell us that “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off…  sent on their way by the Holy Spirit…” Several times over the years I have taken out a stopwatch and timed that “set apart” prophecy of verse 2. It lasted about 3.75 seconds. What was the result of the prophecy? Two apostles — identified as “apostles” in Acts 14:4 and 14 — were called by God in a revelationary spoken word in less than 4 seconds!
In our praying, our prophesying, or any other aspect of our relationship with the Lord, we don’t impress Him by “multiplying words,” nor by our “much speaking.” Should we spend much time with the Lord? Certainly. Absolutely! Our spiritual health depends on our pursuing the Lord and His presence in such things as His Word the Bible, in prayer, and in worship. We do engage in dialogue with Him in these things, and that is excellent. But in these things, as in many others, we are well advised to heed the prevailing wisdom of James 1:19 and be “quick to listen, slow to speak” while heeding God's charge in Ecclesiastes 5:2 to "let your words be few."
Nothing I’ve shared today is intended to inhibit your speaking to God. Sharing your heart and your praise and your needs with God is surely a good thing. My intent (with the Scriptures we’ve looked at) is simply to help you increase the effectiveness of your devotional life. And that will be done in an ongoing way by dialogue with the Lord that prioritizes hearing from Him and from His Word and His Holy Spirit. God loves you, His heart is for you, and He wants to speak to you daily. In closing, let’s remember Jesus’ words in Revelation 2:7, ESV: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says.” God has much to say to you, and you can facilitate that by taking a listening ear into your times of prayer with Him. May He bless you abundantly as you do that.
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©2019, James H. Feeney.
and Bible Studies by
Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.