Faithlife Sermons

Matthew 6:5-13 - Having God's Ear in Prayer

Pursuing Habits of Grace: The Spiritual Disciplines in the Christian's Life  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  40:22
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Prayer is the believer's conversation with God rooted in the Word of God



In his book, Praying the Bible, Dr. Don Whitney tells a story of a Sunday morning worship service at a church he pastored in Chicago. The ushers had come forward to receive the offering, Dr. Whitney could hear someone else talking while the usher prayed. At first he figured whoever it was would realize how loud they were being and quiet down, but the more he listened, he realized that it was the voice of a child—and the child was speaking in unison, word for word, with the usher’s prayer! Turns out it was the usher’s 5 year old son, who had heard his dad pray the exact same words for so long that he knew them by heart!
Now, we laugh at that story—but we also identify with it, don’t we? One of the reasons that we can become so discouraged in our prayer lives is because (as Don Whitney says it), we are always “praying the same old things about the same old things”. We tend to get into a rut with the way that we approach prayer—and when you get into a rut, you get bored. And when you get bored, you get discouraged. And when you get discouraged, you quit. And when you quit praying, you feel like a failure as a Christian. If you get bored with something as important as prayer, there must be something wrong with you, right?!?
When you think about what the Bible tells us about prayer—that you have the ear of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, who is not only willing to hear your prayer but is eager to listen to you, who bends His ear to hear your cry (Psalm 10:17)—who has given His one and only Son to die on the Cross so that you would be forgiven of your crimes against His righteousness and given the righteousness of Christ to allow you to come into His presence day or night for grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16)—if you find that boring, it must be because you are some kind of rotten, second-rate Christian, right?
As we have been considering together the role of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian’s life—the “habits of grace” that put us in the way of His blessings—we looked last time at the way we put ourselves in the way of God’s voice—His Word. We cannot compel or coerce God into being more gracious to us—otherwise it wouldn’t be grace, right? But we saw how by developing habits of Bible reading, study, meditation and memorization we could put ourselves in a place to hear His voice through His Word. And what I want to show you this morning from this passage and others is that our habits of putting ourselves in the way of God’s voice through His Word are absolutely foundational to our prayer life. So as we consider the spiritual discipline of prayer in the Christian life, what I want to demonstrate is that
Prayer is our CONVERSATION with God ROOTED in the WORD of God
If prayer is the fruit, God’s Word is the soil out of which that fruit grows. And I believe we will see from the Scriptures this morning that much of the reason that we are frustrated, bored and discouraged in our prayer lives is because we are trying to have a one-sided conversation—we are only talking to God, but not listening to Him. A lot of the turmoil and animosity swirling around us today comes about because people are loudly insisting that they be heard—without taking the time to listen to anyone else. So let us determine right off that we will not do the same thing with God! When you place yourself in the way of God’s voice through His Word, then you are able to have His ear in prayer.
Our passage here in Matthew 6 takes place in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount”—because in Matthew 5:1 we read that Jesus “went up on the mountain” (probably outside Capernaum) and spoke to His disciples about the nature of the Kingdom that He was proclaiming, contrasting it with the self-righteousness of the religious leaders of the day. In Matthew 6:1, Jesus sets the tone for our study this morning (and for the whole series on the spiritual disciplines):
Matthew 6:1 ESV
1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
He goes on in verses 2-4 to warn His people not to make a big show of their charity so that they would be praised by others, but to give “in secret”, where God alone would see and reward them. And He goes on to say the same thing about prayer in verses 5-6:
Matthew 6:5–6 ESV
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
So the first thing that we see about prayer is that it is

I. A CONFIDENTIAL Conversation (Matthew 6:5-6)

In Luke 19, Zacchaeus had the incredible privilege of having Jesus all to himself, to speak with Him away from the crowds who despised him. But never forget that Zacchaeus was able to speak to Jesus because Jesus spoke to him first! He called Zacchaeus down out of the sycamore tree first, and then Zacchaeus got to speak to Him! So the first thing we must remember about prayer is that it is
A conversation you did not START (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Prayer is, at its essence, your response to God’s voice speaking to you. This is what is behind Paul’s words to the church in Corinth:
2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV
6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
You had no knowledge of God’s glory revealed in Christ until He spoke that light into your heart. And so the motivation for prayer and the desire for prayer in your heart comes about because of what God is doing—you have received the spirit of adoption as sons, by whom you cry out “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). The fact that you are saddened by prayerlessness is a sign that you belong to Christ, because if you weren’t His child you wouldn’t care if you talked to Him or not!
Remember last week we saw that our habits of meditating on God’s Word—chewing on it, considering it:
Psalm 119:15 ESV
15 I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.
Remember, the Hebrew word for “meditate” actually means to “murmur” or “talk over”. In meditation you are ruminating on, chewing over, talking through what God has said to you in His Word—prayer is addressing those words back to God! “Father, this morning I read in Ephesians 2:10 that I am your “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works”—thank you for making me into your workmanship! Thank you that I have salvation in Jesus! What good works do you have for me today? Help me to see opportunities today to do good for people in Your Name!” Do you see? When you approach prayer in terms of continuing a conversation God started in you through His Word, you won’t find yourself “praying the same old things about the same old things” anymore!
Prayer is our confidential conversation between us and God, growing out of the things He has already said to us in His Word. And as we read Jesus’ words here in Matthew 6 we see that prayer is also
A conversation you GUARD (Matthew 6:6)
Look at verse 6:
Matthew 6:6 ESV
6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Instead of the hypocrites who stand out on the street corners to make sure everyone knows how spiritual they are, Jesus tells us that our conversations with our Father in Heaven are to be confidential—we don’t want the reward that comes from others seeing us pray; we want the reward that comes from God hearing us pray!
Jesus gives a lot of emphasis on the privacy of our prayers here, doesn’t He? You are to go into your room to pray. And not just go into your room, but shut the door behind you! And I think there are other things going on here besides just making sure that you’re not “showing off”.
For instance—when you have to have a candid conversation with someone, what do you do? You shut your door, right? Christian, your conversation with God in prayer is the place where you can have the most candid conversations that you will ever have! There is no one else to whom you can pour out your heart, express your deepest fears and weaknesses, no one else who will listen so completely and lovingly to your every doubt, fear, frustration, no one who will rejoice with your excitement and happiness, no one who will take in every word you say like He will!
A conversation behind closed doors is a candid conversation, and it is also an uninterrupted conversation! You shut the doors so that no one else can distract you or pull you aside—prayer is a conversation with God that you guard by shutting the door on distractions. Whether it means that you look for a time to pray when no one else is around (early in the morning or late at night), or in a part of the house where you can have privacy, or even during a part of your day when you can separate yourself for uninterrupted time to speak to God.
I had a seminary professor once who told us that getting a dog was the best thing that ever happened to his prayer life—because that dog had to be walked every day for a half hour, whether George felt like it or not! And that half hour became his prayer time every day! So load up on a verse of Scripture that you’ve memorized and are chewing on, take the dog out for a walk (or shovel snow, or fold laundry or drive a truck or whatever other task you can carry out without interruption with your mind free, and carry on that confidential conversation with God!
Prayer is our conversation with God rooted in the Word of God. It is a confidential conversation, and it is

II. A CONFIDENT Conversation (Matthew 6:7-9)

In verse 7, Jesus tells His people not to “heap up empty phrases” in their prayers. He says
Matthew 6:7 ESV
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.
Historians tell us that the pagan religions of the day would chant or repeat the names of their gods, trying to get their attention—think of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, who called on Baal’s name for hours (but no one answered!) We even see this down to our own day, with Buddhists who print prayers on wheels and then spin them so that a prayer “goes up” with every revolution, Hindus who will repeat the name of Ram for hours on end in their temples—even our Catholic friends who repeat the “Hail Mary”, the “Hail Holy Queen”, the “Glory Be” over and over as acts of penance or devotion.
Jesus says you don’t have to pray that way, repeating God’s name over and over, repeating certain prayers or phrases over and over because you aren’t sure whether God will hear you or not—because, as He says in verse 8:
Matthew 6:8 ESV
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Jesus says to be confident in prayer—you don’t have to worry that you’re not “saying the right words” or that you’re not praying enough words. Your Father in Heaven knows what you need, and He hears your prayers.
And we Protestants may not have whole formulaic prayers that we recite, but—as the opening illustration with the little boy repeating his dad’s prayer word-for-word—we do find ourselves repeating ourselves in prayer. We don’t repeat the “Hail Holy Queen” prayer, but we do have the “Wejuswanna” prayer. You may have heard it before: “Lord, wejuswanna thank you for your grace, Lord, and wejuswanna tell you how good you are, Lord, and wejuswanna ask You to bless us, Lord, and wejuswanna give you the glory...”
I think that kind of mindless repetition not only contributes to our boredom in prayer, it also betrays a heart that lacks confidence in prayer—you don’t know what to say, you are afraid your prayer won’t be “good enough”, so you pick up some phrases here and there from hearing other people pray, and stack them up like a tower of LEGOs into a prayer. But there’s no real communication there—it’s like signing a petition to your congressman and getting a form letter back. It’s technically a letter to you, but there’s no real connection between you.
But if prayer is our conversation with God that is rooted in the Word of God, then we can be confident in our prayers when they are
Guided by God’s WORD (Matthew 6:9-13)
In verses 9-13 Jesus gives us a guide for praying—we call it the “Lord’s Prayer”. And we occasionally do recite the Lord’s Prayer as part of our worship. Now it can become mindless repetition, and we don’t want that to happen—but think for a moment. When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, what are you doing? You are taking a passage of Scripture—Matthew 6:9-13—and using it as a pattern for your prayer! You are praying the Word of God back to Him!
This is an absolutely transformational way of looking at prayer—this is the way that you can avoid “praying the same old things about the same old things”. This is why we say that prayer is a conversation with God rooted in the Word of God—that our prayers (in the words of one author) are “guided by, saturated by, sustained and controlled by the Word of God” (John Piper).
So how do we pray in a way that is guided by the Word of God? What does this look like? We can look at the different prayers that are recorded for us in the Bible, such as Paul’s prayers in Ephesians 1:15-23 or Philippians 1:9-11, or others. But there is one book of the Bible that is the greatest single repository of prayers anywhere in the Scriptures—the Book of Psalms! If you want to develop the discipline of having your prayers guided by the Word of God, there is no better place to start than the Psalms. This is why there is a Psalm listed beside the “Pastoral Prayer” in the bulletin. My aim has been to demonstrate that kind of prayer guided by God’s Word as we pray together in worship.
For instance, turn with me to Psalm 23—surely the most well-known psalm in the Bible (it’s on page 458 in the pew Bible). All you would do is read the first verse or phrase, and turn that phrase back into prayer to God: “The Lord is my shepherd”— “Lord, I thank you that you look after me like a shepherd, that you are always watching me, that you walk with me and guide me...” When you have said everything that you can think about in that phrase, go on to the next: “I shall not want”. “Thank you for always providing for me—I know there are things that I want in my life, but you always provide for me just what I need when I need it...” When you can’t think of anything else to say about that part, move on to the next part: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” “Thank you that I can lie down and be safe in my home...” and so on. Work through the psalm, phrase by phrase or verse by verse, until you either run out of psalm, or run out of time!
You can pray with confidence when your prayer is guided by God’s Word—and you can be confident in prayer knowing that it is
Purified by Christ’s INTERCESSION (Romans 8:34)
Christian, you can be confident in your prayers before God knowing that Jesus Christ Himself is praying for you! Paul writes in Romans 8
Romans 8:34 ESV
34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
He takes your prayers and perfects them before the Father—when you pray “in Jesus’ Name”, it is not just an empty phrase that you stick on the end of a prayer, it is your claim on His promise that He is representing you before His Father in Heaven, and you have the confidence to approach His Throne for grace to help in time of need! (Heb. 4:16)!
The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson puts it this way:
Christ’s prayer takes away the sins of our prayers. As a child... that is willing to present his father with a [bouquet], goes into the garden, and there gathers some flowers and some weeds together, but coming to his mother, she picks out the weeds and binds the flowers, and so it is presented to the father: thus when we have put up our prayers, Christ comes, and picks away the weeds, the sin of our prayer, and presents nothing but flowers to His Father, which are a sweet smelling savour. - All Things For Good, p. 23)
Christian, you can have confidence in your prayers, because Jesus takes them and perfects them for you!
Prayer is our conversation with God rooted in the Word of God—it is a confidential conversation, it is a confident conversation, and it is

III. A CONSTANT Conversation (Matthew 6:11-13)

The greatest factor in our boredom and discouragement in prayer is that we pray “the same old things about the same old things”. But the fact is, there are things that we need to pray about every day, aren’t there? Jesus says in Matthew 6:11 that we are to pray
Matthew 6:11 ESV
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
We do need to
Pray for daily CONCERNS (Matt. 6:11-13)
In his book, Praying the Psalms, Don Whitney identifies six areas of life that we will always be praying for in one way or another: our family, our future, our finances, our work, various Christian concerns (e.g., missions, evangelism, ministry), and current crises. He says, “If you are going to pray about your life, these six things are your life!” (Praying the Bible, p. 18). You do have to “pray about the same old things”—but when your prayer is guided by God’s Word and you use His words to pray back to Him, you can pray for these things in a way that avoids all the empty phrases and repetitions of a prayer that lacks confidence: “Father, I’m so stressed right now about the election fight, please be my Shepherd and let me lie down in green pastures—make me feel safe enough to rest—restore my soul!” “Lord, this medical issue is becoming so serious—I feel like death’s shadow is falling on me, I just can’t see the light at the end of this, comfort me! Let me hold Your hand as I walk through this darkness, bring me to the other side!”
Let God’s Word guide you as you pray for daily concerns—and let God’s Word comfort you as you
Pray in hard CIRCUMSTANCES (Luke 18:1-8)
In the verses we read together earlier out of Luke 18, Jesus tells the story of the widow and the judge—a woman who had to keep pestering and petitioning a corrupt judge who was refusing to listen to her until she finally wore him down and he heard her case. In verse 1, we are told that
Luke 18:1 ESV
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.
Think of this—Jesus told this parable because He knows there are times when you will lose heart in prayer! Please just let that sink in for a moment: You face discouragement in prayer, you pray the same old things about the same old things, you struggle to keep praying when you’ve been praying for the same thing for years and it seems like God doesn’t hear you—Jesus gets it! He understands what it is like to have your prayers go unanswered—in the Garden of Gethsemane He prayed that He wouldn’t have to go through the Crucifixion—He asked His Father to rescue Him from the Cross, and His Father said no!
Matthew 26:39 ESV
39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Jesus knows how discouraging it can be to pray and pray and pray for God to work in your life in a certain way, only to feel like your prayers don’t make it any further than the ceiling—He knows what it’s like to hear God answer a prayer with “No”. And He does not want you to lose heart—He wants you to keep praying through all circumstances, to “pray at all times and not lose heart”, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). If you have heard His voice calling you to salvation, if you have repented of your sin and look to His death and resurrection to be the payment for all your crimes against God and are trusting in His grace to clothe you in His perfect righteousness, then He has promised to hear your prayers, because you are praying not on the basis of your own righteousness, but on the basis of Jesus’ righteousness that He has given you through your faith in Him!
There are a lot of people out there who can spin out fine-sounding prayers, with all the King-James style “thees and thous”, whose every prayer is a verbal masterpiece of soaring imagery and heart-tugging emotion—and their hearts are cold as ice toward God. They have no relationship with Him. They have just learned the language and know how to put the phrases together, but it’s nothing more than a form letter composed to sound good.
And then there are those who stammer and stutter through their prayers, who don’t know how to make the words flow, who can’t impress anyone with their fine-sounding words, but who are simply calling out on a Father who loves them! They know they can come to Him, close the door, and pour out their heart to Him! They have the confidence that no matter how confused or halting or unimpressive their prayers might be, they are confident that Jesus is taking their prayers and picking out the weeds of any sinfulness in their words and presenting their prayers to their Father as a sweet-smelling bouquet. They know they can pray God’s Word back to Him, and let the cries and praises of the saints in the Bible give voice to the cries and praises of their own hearts. They know that whatever they pray for, whenever they pray, they have His ear, and He loves to hear them, and He will answer them—they know that they have a Savior who knows what it is like to hear His most urgent prayer request denied by His Father, and they rest in the knowledge that because His prayer in the Garden was denied and He had to suffer the Cross, that they will never be forsaken by God!
If you have come by faith to salvation in Jesus Christ, then this is the relationship you already have with Him! You have God’s ear in prayer, and every blessing that the Scriptures promise you in prayer is already yours! And if you are here apart from Christ this morning, you are promised that there is one prayer that God guarantees to answer for you:
Romans 10:13 ESV
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Here is the invitation that is open to you this morning—you can be free of all of your crimes before God, you can be free of the threat of eternal punishment away from His presence in Hell—where no prayer is ever answered—you can call on the Name of the LORD this morning! And He will rush to answer, He will cleanse you from your guilt, He will clothe you in His own righteousness, and you will have His ear in prayer for the rest of your life and for all eternity! Let us pray with you—not because you need to repeat some magic words, but so that we can pray with you and encourage you and help you know for sure that you belong to Him! So come and pray, come and call on His Name, come—and welcome!—to Jesus Christ!
1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 ESV
23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.


Have you ever encountered discouragement in your prayer life? What are some of the reasons that prayer seems so difficult?
What are some of the ways that “meaningless repetitions” creep into our prayers? How do those “empty words” demonstrate that we lack confidence that our prayers are being heard by God?
The 19th Century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “Turn the Bible into prayer… This is the best way of knowing the meaning of the Bible, and of learning to pray”. Take some time this week and use the words of Psalm 23 to pray to God regarding your daily concerns. How does praying the words of Scripture help you avoid “praying the same old things about the same old things”?
Praying the Bible, by Donald Whitney, Crossway Publishers (2015). Available on and the church library. This book expands on and explains much of what is presented in this morning’s sermon.
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