Summary: This is the first time Jesus taught his first disciples about prayer. His first lesson was, “Spend time alone with the Father in prayer.” If we don’t follow his first lesson, we are not following the example or the command of Christ.
"But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Matthew 6:6
A little boy was saying his bedtime prayers when his mother passed by his room and stopped to listen. “Bless Mommy and Daddy.” Then he shouted, “PLEASE, GOD, GIVE ME A NEW BICYCLE!” His mother stepped in and said, “You don’t have to shout. God is not hard of hearing.” Her son replied, “I know God is not hard of hearing, but Grandma’s in the next room, and she is.”
It sounds like he was saying, “God, give me a new bicycle,” but he was praying to Grandma.
Denn Guptill went to Bible College with a guy named Kirk. He and his friends never asked Kirk to say grace when they went out for burgers because he said grace for everyone in the restaurant. Denn said that Mabs Fernley was different. One evening when Mabs was saying grace at supper her husband, Walter, said, “Mabs I can’t hear you.” She said, “That’s OK Walter. I wasn’t talking to you.”
When you pray publicly for a group, speaking so you can be heard by the group is just the polite thing to do. But she was right about who she was talking to. The boy, pretending to pray but really wanting Grandma to notice, and Kirk, praying on and on for everybody in the restaurant, sound kind of like the warnings Jesus gives just before and after telling us to pray privately. Let’s read Matthew 6:5-7 together.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words."
Hypocrites pray to be seen by men. Pagans babble on and on. Sadly, more times than I care to remember, I have been one or the other. Jesus emphasizes private prayer.
I have worked with quite a few volunteers, pastors, missionaries, state workers, denominational workers, and seminary students. Some have emphasized the importance of time alone with God after admitting that they had let their ministries or their studies crowd out that private time. They wanted to warn other volunteers, ministers, and students not to neglect time alone with God. A common theme was, “When you are too busy to pray, you are too busy.”
It’s easy to fall into the “I’m too busy” trap.
You’re a Sunday School teacher. You know you need time to pray and read the Bible for yourself, but the lesson must be ready by Sunday. You tell yourself, “It IS Bible study.” Then you let that substitute for your quiet time.
You’re a seminary student. You’re taking New Testmant Greek, Old Testament survey, systematic theology, and who knows what else. It’s six weeks into the semester and you’re nine weeks behind. (I’m not sure how that happens, but I’ve heard that complaint.) You spend hours a day in Bible classes and classes related to the Bible. You have more hours of homework. Your day is still only 24 hours long. You tell yourself, “It IS Bible study.” Then you let that substitute for your quiet time.
You’re a pastor. You pray with everyone you visit in the hospital and everyone you counsel. You study to preach. Maybe you, too, have a Sunday School class to teach. The demands keep coming. You tell yourself, “It IS prayer and Bible study.” Then you let those things substitute for your quiet time alone with the Father.
You’re a parent. I have never been a parent, so I won’t pretend to know what all fills your day. But it is full. At night, you listen to your little children say their prayers. You tell yourself, “It IS prayer.” Then you let that substitute for your quiet time.
We can all come up with reasons to accept substitutes for our personal, private time with God.
In Mark 1, after going to the synagogue, Jesus goes to Peter’s house and heals his mother-in-law. Then, at sunset, sick people from all over town descend on the house to be healed. Who knows how late Jesus was up healing? Mark 1:35 tells us that, “in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.”