Don’t pray like a pagan. In Matthew 6:7-8, Jesus shows us a better way to pray.
Tommy, a very bright 5 year old, told his daddy he'd like to have a baby brother and, along with his request, offered to do whatever he could to help.
His dad, a very bright 35 year old, paused for a moment and then replied, "I'll tell you what, Tommy, if you pray every day for two months for a baby brother, I guarantee that God will give you one!"
Tommy responded eagerly to his dad's challenge and went to his bedroom early that night to start praying for a baby brother. He prayed every night for a whole month, but after that time, he began to get skeptical. He checked around the neighborhood and found out that what he thought was going to happen, had never occurred in the history of the neighborhood. You just don't pray for two months and then, whammo - a new baby brother. So, Tommy quit praying.
After another month, Tommy's mother went to the hospital. When she came back home, Tommy's parents called him into the bedroom. He cautiously walked into the room, not expecting to find anything, and there was a little bundle lying right next to his mother.
His dad pulled back the blanket and there was - not one baby brother, but two!! His mother had twins! Tommy's dad looked down at him and said, "Now aren't you glad you prayed?"
Tommy hesitated a little and then looked up at his dad and said, "Yes, but aren't you glad I quit when I did?"
Speaking of prayer, have any of you ever called a prayer hot line? There’s 1-800-NEED-HIM, and I know K-Love, Moody and other radio stations - even many churches - have phone numbers you can call when standing in the need of prayer.
The other day I heard that there’s even a 24 hour prayer line now for atheists. Can you believe it? Yes, apparently, you dial the number, and the phone just rings and rings and rings. No one ever picks up!
Aren’t you glad our loving Father in Heaven always picks up when we call? It’s a toll free number. Just dial J-E-S-U-S, and our Father will answer every single time.
Jeremiah 29:12 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.
“But,” some might ask, “What good is prayer anyway? With all that’s going on our world today, why take time to pray?
The truth is, many of us are functional atheists when it comes to our prayer lives. We believe God exists, but we rarely if ever set aside time to meet with Him, speak with Him, listen to Him. We rarely set aside a few moments to spend quality time with our Heavenly Father in prayer. While we are Christians by creed, we are functional atheists when it comes to prayer.
Late last September, our nation was once again shocked and saddened by another heinous act of violence and murder on a school campus. My first response – like yours no doubt – was to stop and pray. My second response was to put a message out to our church family through our Facebook page, encouraging everyone to pray for the victims and their families as well as first responders and all who were responding to the shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College.
In times like this, we turn to our leaders for comfort and reassurance. In his impassioned, televised speech, the President stated, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” In other words, we’ve got to take action. We’ve got to make changes to ensure this kind of thing will not happen again. The President went on to call for action at the local, state, and federal level on so called “common sense gun laws.” The next day, many newspapers picked up on the headline: “Our thought and prayers are not enough.”
I mention his speech not to enter into a debate about so called “gun control,” but because his comments raise a good point. In times of tragedy and crisis, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
How many times have you needed practical assistance and all someone said was, “Wow – I’m so sorry. I hope things get better. I’ll pray about it” – and you were like, “Thanks for prayers, but how about you help do something about it!”?
1 John 3:18 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
Why pray when thoughts and prayers are so often not enough?
That’s the practical reason many choose not to pray. Now let’s consider a theological reason some don’t see the need for prayer. Bible toting Calvin is sitting in Sunday school class one day, when the subject of prayer comes up. Various people begin sharing their experiences of answered prayer. One brave soul admits that sometimes it’s frustrating when God doesn’t answer our prayers when and where and in the way we want Him to. Others nod their heads in agreement, encouraging him to keep on praying and never give up.
Then Calvin clears his throat and says, “To be honest, I have never seen the need for prayer.” “I mean, God already knows what we need before we ask Him. And, besides, His will is already fixed. It’s not like my prayer is going to change God’s mind. So I just trust God’s will and wait for His providence. The very idea of prayer seems to contradict a belief in God’s perfect omniscience and loving providence.”
So how would you respond to Bible toting Calvin? He makes a good point, right? If God is all knowing and if God’s will will be done, what the point of prayer?
Some people don’t pray because they don’t really believe in God. Some people don’t pray because prayer seems impractical in times like these. Some people don’t pray because God already knows what we need and He’s already planned out what happens next.
In Matthew 6, Jesus assumes His disciples will pray. Whatever their practical or theological considerations might be, followers of Jesus Christ will follow His example in prayer. Like Jesus, they will prioritize prayer. Like Jesus, they will pray.
In Matthew 6:5ff, Jesus focused on how His disciples should pray.
Don’t pray like the hypocritical Pharisees who pray more for human applause than the Father’s approval. When we pray to impress others, God is unimpressed with our prayers.
Don’t pray like the manipulative pagans who think of prayer as a way to convince, coax, or sweet-talk God into giving us what we want. When we pray to manipulate God, God is unmoved by our prayers.
We’ve been asking the question, “Why do we pray?” Clearly, we don’t pray for religious accolades. Nor do we pray so that we can get what we want. So why should we pray? How should we pray? What should we pray for? Let’s take a closer look in Matthew 6.
1. In your praying, do not babble on and on as the pagans do, thinking they can somehow bend the gods to do their will (Matthew 6:7-8).
Matthew 6:7 7 "And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.
Three words in verse 7 require a little closer examination.
As far as I can tell, this is the first use of this word in all of Greek literature. It could have been coined by Jesus Himself. So what does it mean? It is variously translated by the English versions: KJV: “use not vain repetitions” NIV: “do not keep on babbling” ESV, NRSV: “do not heap up empty phrases” NAU: “do not use meaningless repetition” (Though remember, not all repetition is bad: Matthew 26:44 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.)
This word battalogeo appears to be an example of onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the very thing it is describing. The old Batman shows used this quite a bit during fight scenes. Remember? “POW!” “BAM!” “ZAP!” We could add “Splat!” and “Whoosh” and “Snap, Crackle, Pop!” to the list.
So what does battalogeo battaloge,w mean? It’s a combination words: logeo means “to speak” and batta means, well, “batta” – babble, gibberish, meaningless talk. "When you pray, don't babble on and on…” (NLT).
This word can be translated “pagan,” “heathen,” or “Gentile.” To Jesus’ Jewish audience, it was a reference to non-Jewish people, members of the Greco-Roman world. They did not worship the one true God but many gods.
Unlike the one true God who is Holy and Loving and Unchanging, the gods of the Greco-Roman world were capricious and childish and temperamental. When people prayed to them, they would heap up empty phrases hoping to somehow make their voice heard, to somehow get their attention and plead their case. They repeated the names of their gods or the same words over and over, thinking this was the way to get the gods’ attention, to get them to do what they wanted.
In their prayers, they would often heap up long lists of the names of the gods so as not to insult them in some way by somehow calling them a name other than the name that particular god preferred on any given day.
So, for instance, in one recorded prayer to the goddess Diana, the person praying petitions the goddess to “be a sweet help to the people of Rome,” but he only does so after heaping up a long list of names for Diana concluding, “take whatever name pleases you.”
I once had a friend who thought he was more likely to have his prayers answered if He addressed the Lord as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Some of us repeat the word “Father” or “God” or “Jesus” so many times in our prayers that it too can become meaningless repetition. Perhaps unknowingly, we, like the pagans of Jesus’ day, think that we can get what we want from God if we just call him by the right name or repeat His name(s) often enough in our prayers.
But this isn’t how God works, and this isn’t how prayer works. God isn’t a genie in a bottle. He doesn’t grant you three wishes if you rub Him in the right way. If you think He does, I guarantee you, your prayers are rubbing him the wrong way.
Here we have another combination word. Logia means “words” and polu or poly means ”many.” Not only do pagans think their prayers will be heard and answered because of heaping up many names and repeating certain phrases like a magical incantation, they also thought the gods would be more likely to respond to long winded prayers than to short prayers.
In your praying, do not babble on and on as the pagans do, thinking they can somehow bend the gods to do their will.
How do pagans pray? Pagan prayers are…
1) Meaningless Babble (Gibberish)
2) Mechanical Prattle (Right words, Wrong heart)
3) Magical Manipulation (Thinking if we just say the right prayer in the right way God has to give us what we want.)
4) Many-Worded Stipulations (Contractual Agreements with God; “God, if you do this for me, I’ll never” or “I’ll always…”; “God, you owe me…Remember when I…”)
Jesus’ point is simple: Don’t pray like a pagan!
(For further study, check out a humorous yet poignant example of pagan prayers verses God glorifying prayers in 1 Kings 18:18ff).
2. Don’t pray like a pagan. Do pray to your loving Father in heaven.
Don’t be like the pagans when you pray. “For your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).
God is our Father. He is not a distant, temperamental god living on Mt. Olympus. He is our Father who lovingly hears and faithfully listens to His children when they pray. The stress here is on relationship.
Imagine you’re out on a date with that special someone. What if I spoke to my beloved Tanya the way pagans speak to their false gods? What if you spoke to your loved one that way? You don’t use mindless repetition or heap up empty phrases when talking to someone you’re close to, someone you love. So why in the world would you talk to God that way? He’s your Father who knows you better than you know yourself. And guess what: He loves you! Prayer is like a date with your loving Father in heaven.
How do we address God in the Lord’s Prayer? We say, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” “The idea of praying to God as ‘Our Father’ conveys the authority, warmth, and intimacy of a loving father’s care, while ‘in heaven’ reminds believers of God’s sovereign rule over all things.”
I love my kids, and I love it when they come and talk to me. But if they treated me in conversation the way many of us treat God in prayer, I don’t think I would be pleased to hear them anymore.
Do you love God? Tell Him! Do you trust God? Tell Him! Do you need God? Tell Him!
Your heavenly Father loves you dearly, and He wants to spend time with you. That’s ultimately what prayer is: quality time with your Father.
Matthew 6:8 "[Don’t pray like pagans], for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
Your Father knows what you need. Father God already knows our needs, and He delights to meet them. Some wonder, then, if God already know what we need, why should Christians pray?
John Stott writes, “Believers do not pray to God to tell Him things He doesn’t know or to motivate Him to keep His promises or to urge Him to do what He really doesn’t want to do at all. Rather, prayer is for our benefit – to exercise our faith and to cast our worries upon Him.” Martin Luther reminds us, “By our praying…we are instructing ourselves, not God.”
Some of you think that prayer is like holding God’s feet to the fire, kind of like a child who bugs his or her parents over and over again, hoping they’ll eventually wear out with the asking. If we stay at it long enough, God will eventually give you what you want. Others think of God like the prophets of Baal thought of him at Mt. Carmel, as if He is perhaps asleep and needs to be awakened.
Some possess a sort of Disney theology that says, “If you only believe” whatever you dream will come true. Yes, Jesus says belief is the key to unlocking and enjoying the blessings of God’s will. But we shouldn’t think of belief as wish-fullness or a self-produced certainty that our wants and wishes will be granted. Belief and faith are gifts from God. We do not generate belief or faith any more than we generate life from death. We do not contribute faith to our salvation any more than we contribute good works toward our salvation. It is God’s work from beginning to ending!
Ephesians 2:8-9 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Belief is a gift from God, not a payment to God. This is true of salvation, and this is true of prayer.
If the fact of God’s sovereign providence discourages you from praying, you really haven’t understood the purpose of prayer. We don’t pray to get ahold of God or get what we want from God. We pray because God has already gotten ahold of us. We pray because God loves us and will give us everything we need.
The fact that God knows what we need before we ask Him is not less reason to pray but more reason to pray! We don’t pray like pagans who anxiously wonder if the gods will hear, let alone answer. We pray with the confidence that our Father both hears our prayers and delights in our prayers. Further, we pray with the confidence that our Father not only knows what we will pray but has already answered our prayer!
His answer could be “Yes,” “No” or “Not Yet,” but from eternity past God has known what you will pray and how He will answer. We pray with the confidence that God hears our prayer and will answer our prayers – indeed, He already has!
Prayer is not an option for the true follower of Jesus Christ. “When you pray…” says Jesus. When you pray, don’t pray like hypocrites who pray more for the applause of earth than the approval of heaven. When you pray, don’t pray like pagans who think of the gods as genies that need to be rubbed the right way.
Pray to your Father. Pray to your Father in secret. Pray to your Father in faith. He loves you. He knows you. He will hear you. He will answer you.
 ESV Study Bible, S.v. “Matthew 6:9” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
 Stott, John. Sermon on the Mount: 12 Studies for Individuals or Groups (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 71.
© 2016, Jason M. Platt, All Rights Reserved