Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen. (Psa 19:14)
Text: Matthew 6:5–8
“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. But when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”
Prayer is the matter of the heart. Only the heart can pray. Prayer that does not come from the heart is no prayer. Should empty words be prayer to the Lord? In this Bible text Jesus teaches us two things:
1) When you pray, then present yourself before God, and deal only with Him! Let your thoughts and feelings be gathered before Him. Let nothing of the world occupy your thoughts, not the beams in the ceiling or the stars in the sky or your daily business or your earthly joys and sorrows, unless you are speaking about them with the Lord. Don’t think about the people around you, and those who see you. But you should be one with God, whether you are alone or in the midst of a congregation. The Pharisees prayed in order to be regarded as pious. You are guilty of the same hypocrisy if you want people to see you praying diligently and want them to praise your fervent and eloquent prayer. – But then do saints never have any strange thoughts during prayer? Yes, of course, almost always, but it troubles and humbles them, and inwardly they yearn for grace to pray with devotion.
2) Do not think about what words to pray with, and do not think you can move God just like human beings, with your manner of speaking. Speak from your heart, whether it be few or many words, whether it often repeats the same thoughts, because it is so full of them that it cannot do otherwise, just like David and Hannah, or it can only present a short sigh, like the tax-collector. I have heard long prayers which were so completely heartfelt that there did not seem to be any superfluous words, and I have heard prayers of sighing which laid the whole case before God in few words. But I have also heard long empty prayers, from people who rambled on and from people who made up for their lack of words by filling the prayer with a vain repetition of God’s name. The Lord does not forbid us to use many words in prayer, but “superfluous” words He does forbid. And He forbids the idea that many words should move God. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Joh 4:24). How detestable is a spiritless, empty, external prayer! But how excellent a true prayer is, how powerful to find its way into God’s heart, and how blessed and lively for those who pray! “The best of all the hours we spend While here on earth above the sod Are those in which our way we wend In earnest prayer to meet our God.”1 The Lord wants to teach us this and He will.
O God, grant us the Spirit of grace and prayer! Forgive us all our sin committed while praying to You. Let Your Spirit work in us inexpressible sighing. We despair of ourselves before Your face, holy God. Have mercy on us. Let us nevermore offer empty words to You, but always pray in spirit and in truth. Amen.
So pray not only with your words,
And doubt not that your prayer is heard,
But from your heart true faith do give
And what you ask you shall receive.
Sweet Jesus, help me persevere
And to Your Father to draw near,
That I receive eternally,
My Jesus, what is best for me.
German: Vel den, der ved i Jesu Navn L 404:5-6 tr. DeGarmeaux;
tune: Komm, Gott Schöpfer (ELH 10); alternate hymn: Come, my soul ELH 381:1.3