A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:7-15. A Christian’s Prayer: Not mechanical but thoughtful (continued).
How are we to apply our Lord’s prohibition today? It is certainly applicable to the prayer wheel, and even more to prayer flags by which the wind conveniently does the ‘praying’. I think we must apply it also to Transcendental Meditation, for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has himself expressed regret at his misleading choice of the word ‘meditation’. True meditation involves the conscious use of the mind, but Transcendental Meditation is a simple and essentially mechanical technique for the relaxing of both body and mind. Instead of stimulating thought, it is designed to bring a person to a state of complete stillness and inactivity.
Turning from non-Christian to Christian practices of prayer, it seems that our Lord’s condemnation would certainly include a mindless use of the rosary in which nothing happens but the fingering of beads and reciting of words, in which (that is) the rosary distracts instead of concentrating the mind. Does it also apply to liturgical forms of worship? Are Anglicans guilty of *battalogia*? Yes, no doubt some are, for the use of set forms does permit an approach to God with the lips while the heart is far from him. But then it is equally possible to use ‘empty phrases’ in extempore prayer and to lapse into religious jargon while the mind wanders. To sum up, what Jesus forbids his people is any kind of prayer with the mouth when the mind is not engaged.
The next words expose the folly of such a pretence at praying: *for they think that they will be heard for their many words*. NEB: ‘They imagine that the more they say, the more likely they are to be heard’. What an incredible notion! What sort of a God is this who is chiefly impressed by the mechanics and the statistics of prayer, and whose response is determined by the volume of words we use and the number of hours we spend in praying?
*Do not be like them*, Jesus says (8). Why not? Because Christians do not believe in that kind of God. That is, we are not to do as they do because we are not to think as they think. On the contrary, *your Father knows what you need before you ask him*. He is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade him. He is our Father – a Father who loves his children and knows all about their needs.
If that be so, somebody asks, then what is the point of praying? Let Calvin answer your question: ‘Believers do not pray with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.’. Luther put it more succinctly still: ‘By our praying … we are instructing ourselves more than we are him’.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:7-15. The Christian way of prayer.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.