Our message today is taken from the Word of God in Matthew 6:6: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Prayer is both the greatest blessing that God has given to us and also the most difficult spiritual activity that God has called us to perform.
What is a greater blessing than to come before our Father in secret; to enter into the secret holy place of God; to express our dependence upon Him for all things; to expect that in Jesus Christ He will give us what we need; to join with the worshipers at His throne and to receive supplies of grace sufficient; to be given peace passing understanding. What can compare to having stood in the presence of God in prayer?
But prayer, at the same time, is the most difficult spiritual activity to which God calls us. It seems that at no time does sin oppose and impede us as at the moment of prayer. Scripture refers to prayer as “wrestling”: Jacob wrestled with God. The apostle Paul in Romans 15 uses a word for prayer which means “agonize”: Pray for me, agonize before God for me. And how true to our experience! Sincere, regular, and heartfelt prayer to God is an intense struggle. We fall into vain repetition. Our minds drift away. And so often our hearts are cold and the words seem to choke in our mouth.
So we need instruction and we need encouragement in prayer.
We must not despair and quit praying because it is difficult and because we are weak. We must not feel unworthy of the secret place. Through Jesus Christ we must continue to come to the throne of grace in full assurance. And we must struggle on, receiving the reward of our Father which is strength and peace through prayer.
In our text, the Lord offers no easy fix for prayer. He does not provide us with a magical solution whereby all the struggle and difficulty simply falls away. In our text He calls us to an intense, spiritual prayer. He calls us to engage our heart, our mind, and our being. And He promises us that in this way we shall receive the blessing of God.
Matthew 6 is part of the Sermon on the Mount. In this part of this sermon Jesus is exposing the outward, sham religion of the Pharisees. He is exposing it for what it was-shot through with the rottenness of stinking hypocrisy. It was a religion which was motivated by one principle: to be seen of men; to have glory of men. They were driven by a preoccupation with the eye of man, not the eye of God. In all of their alms (that is, in giving for the poor), in their prayer, and in their fasting, they went no further than the eye of man. That was the essence of their religion. In stark contrast, our Lord teaches us that the essence of true religion must be that we are concerned with being seen of God in secret. Our Lord calls us to a personal, sincere, heartfelt prayer-life before God. Our Lord says that prayer is not simply the mouthing of words or the folding of hands or the outward appearance. But prayer is when we shut out the world, our own thoughts of ourselves, and our sins, and we focus upon God. We seek His presence in secret.
And He promises us that in this way we shall receive our reward.
“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” Let us not overlook the fact that Jesus is assuming here that His disciples will pray. “But thou, when thou prayest….” Prayer is taken for granted as a given in the life of the child of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is speaking these words to His disciples. In Matthew 5:1 we read that His disciples came unto Him, and He sat down and taught them. Not to pray is wicked. The life of Christ which is given to us seeks after God. As the plant in your house will always turn its leaves to the sun no matter where you position it, so prayer to the Christian. We must look unto God from whence cometh our help.
The word Jesus uses for prayer here is a general word which means “worship.” Prayer is necessary as worship. When the heart knows God, the true God of the Bible, and when the heart understands one’s dependence before this God and answerability to this God, then the result will be: prayer, speaking to God, going to Him, talking with Him. Do you pray?
I am not asking you now if your prayer-life is what it should be. I am not asking you whether or not you are able to bring forth a fluent prayer. I am not even asking you right now if your prayer-life is regular. I ask you: Do you pray? Do you come before your Father in secret, in the place of prayer? If not, you must repent now! When we are prayerless we are not only weak and subject to temptations and to falling into sin. When we are prayerless, we are sinning. Jesus says, Pray!
But our Lord knows that it is in prayer that we are confronted by a great struggle because of our indwelling sin, our pride, our self-glorification. You understand, I trust, that the Lord is not emphasizing the mere outward manner or form of our prayer. He is not emphasizing where we pray. But He is emphasizing the motive. If you were to take out your Bible you would see that the Lord, in this verse, is drawing a contrast with the hypocrites, who stood in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets and who pray with themselves. The Lord says, in opposition to that, you find a secluded spot. There may be something to be said about finding a secluded place where you pray, away from distractions. That may be indeed true. But the Lord is emphasizing the motive. The hypocrite, says the Lord, prays to be seen of men. When he prays, man is on his mind. As he folds his hands in prayer, the hypocrite is concerned with this thought, “What are people thinking about me now?” Before him are the eyes and the ears of men. And the Lord is emphasizing that it is the attitude of your mind, it is the direction of your heart, that is central in the life of prayer. You must come before your Father in secret. Do not be as a hypocrite.
That means that it is in our nature to carry our sin in the form of our pride right into the presence of God. I believe this is one of the most devastating effects of sin in our life. It defiles even the holy place of prayer. The Lord is saying, “Disciples, you had better beware. You must take heed. Your sin will follow you all the way into the presence of God.” Sin is not something that is in a faraway land (when you are at work or at play or wherever you are) and now you leave that distant land when you come into prayer by folding of your hands and it stays away. No. Sin trails you right into the holy place. It will follow you right up to the gates of heaven and it will try to get in, right up to your prayer, because sin is the disposition of your heart. While we are praying to God, so often we are worshiping ourselves. We are thinking of ourselves, our own words before the ears of others.
The highest picture you will ever have of a Christian is when he is on his knees before God in prayer. Oh, the blessing. But right there sin seeks to intrude. You begin to be tempted to think about yourself. Can you pray for two or three minutes without having your mind wander? You become concerned that others see you pray. Your words are intended to receive the praise and acceptance of men. You are worshiping men and yourself rather than God.
And the child of God knows that. That is why he always sees his own sin as that which is the greatest. The child of God does not need to look to the drunkard in the gutter and say, There is the picture of sin. But the child of God finds a more horrible picture of sin in himself. He has to fight evil in his own heart as he comes to God in prayer.
So Jesus says, If you are truly to pray, enter into the holy place. The Lord speaks of a closet. “Enter into thy closet,” that is, a chamber, a private, secret room. Close the door, says Jesus, and come to your Father in secret (that is, a hidden spot). Understand again that the Lord is not prohibiting public prayer. He is not prohibiting family prayer or group prayer. We know that such things are practiced in the book of Acts-the believers prayed together. Nor does He mean that we simply go into a closet thinking that if we go into a closet in the house we have locked out the world and sin. You do not lock out sin with a door. You have not closed your heart to sin by closing a door. Jesus means that you must earnestly lock out all that would draw your mind from God. Whether you are praying in public or in private, whether you are at your table or in church, whether you are in school or in a restaurant, whether you are in a hospital room with an afflicted saint or in a church meeting, or whether you are all by yourself-before you speak one word, go to your closet. Shut the door. And go to your Father in secret.
The Pharisees concentrated on themselves. When praying before men, they wanted to be known as holy men of prayer. Not you, says Jesus! You must shut out all intrusions. You must get rid of distractions. Close the door! Never do we need His grace so desperately as when we come to Him in prayer. Shut from your mind all thoughts of the creature and have respect to God alone. Do not be occupied with that which is around you, but with God who is invisible.
How many of our prayers go no higher than the roof of our mouth? What a need we have of knowing that Christ is our Intercessor. There are so many ways of doing exactly what the Lord warns against. Are our prayers (private or family) different when guests are present? Would your child say to the visiting minister or elder, “Dad, you prayed longer because the minister is here.” Do we pray in secret (private prayer) in such a way that everybody knows we pray in private? Children, do you ever do that when you are at MacDonald’s? Do you hold your head down longer in silent prayer than anyone else to be sure that everyone knows that you pray and you pray longer than everyone else? If so, you are praying to be seen of men. Jesus forbids that.
Do you pray for the ears of men or women? Does your mind quickly wander? That happens to every one of us. That is why I think it is good that you, in your private prayer, pray out loud. That is why I think it is good that when we go to God in our private prayers we do not get too comfortable. At night when you pray before you go to sleep, do not lie down in your bed first. Do not get comfortable!
To whom are we praying? Verily, verily, I say unto you, Jesus says concerning the hypocrites, they have their reward. The hypocrite is going to get what he wants. He wants the applause and recognition of men? He is going to get that. But what of it? When he’s got it, what does he have? He does not have the wonder of God’s presence. He does not experience the light of God’s face. And that is why the psalmist says in Psalm 86:11, “unite my heart to fear thy name.” Lord, I do not want my heart like a delta with all kinds of streams flowing every direction. Make my heart like one mighty torrent, one river unto God. That is the essence of prayer. Come apart. Close the door. Enter into the secret chamber. And you will find that someone is waiting for you.
“Pray to your Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” That is, focus your heart upon your Father. Realize that God is there! Think of that! Think of who He is and what He is-Almighty and majestic, God over all, blinding in holiness and beauty, glorious in love and mercy. I am entering into the presence of the eternal and the blessed and the only God and my Father for the sake of Jesus Christ. He is the One who inhabits the secret chamber of prayer. He is the One who is there. Prayer brings you into a hidden spot untouched by sin. No turmoil of confusion there. A glorious place before which angels dare hardly to enter. Prayer puts you right before the throne of God and Him who sits upon the throne. The Father, says Jesus, sees you in secret. You cannot carry anything into His presence behind your back. He knows your heart and the secrets within.
But, Jesus says, the Father is in secret. That is where He is at. His presence is there. Oh, yes, He is with you as you walk by the way. He holds your hands as they are upon your computer keyboard. He holds your hands as you drive your car, as you change diapers, as you do your dishes, as you are at your desk. But there is a secret place where He is. And you may go there and have audience with Him alone. He will hear and will listen to every sigh that you breathe. He will answer you and will wrap His arms around you. Prayer is the place where we may shut out the world and be alone with God. Do you not need that? Can you hardly wait for the next moment when you may go into the secret place of God? Is there any place that you know more precious?
Pray to your Father. Can you think of anything more wonderful? Jesus is saying that when you pray you must be aware of the relationship between God and you. The word “Father” overflows with all the truths of the richness of God’s electing grace and mercy. It implies that we have been adopted in the blood of the Lamb. It implies to us that He is our perfect Father who knows all our needs, who possesses perfect wisdom, who is committed to our good, who cares for us and desires to bless us more than we desire to be blessed.
Come in childlike confidence. Come before the Father in the assurance that as the Father has purchased you in Christ He will bless you in the fullness of Christ. How we need to do this!
Prayer is not a luxury. Prayer is a necessity. Exactly because it is to come before our Father in secret it means that it is the source of our strength. Think of Christ. How was Christ strengthened in His earthly life? How was He replenished in order that He might do His task? Prayer. We read, “and when it was even, He went into a mountain to pray.” In the days of His flesh, He poured out His soul to God in secret. And His Father rewarded Him openly.
Do you pray? Do you have the habit of personal prayer? I am not asking you if your prayers are perfect. I am not asking if your prayers are the way you want them to be. But, do you pray as a regular habit? A habit of prayer-as you have a habit of getting dressed at a certain time, taking a shower at a certain time. As you have your regular routines. I am not asking you, is prayer your good intention? Is prayer your regular habit? If it is not, why not?
If it is not, repent. Coming to God in prayer is the very heart of our life as His children. Take it away, be prayerless, and you shall suffer exceedingly. It will lead to apostasy. It will lead to carelessness. It will get worse and worse. Pray. Enter into the secret chamber. Wage an all-out war with anything that will keep you away from prayer, anything that will distract you. If need be, when you say, I don’t have time, cancel the paper, unplug the TV, take the telephone off the hook. Generations have lived without papers, without TV, without telephones, and without computers. But no generation of people of God have lived without prayer.
“And your Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” He shall reward you openly in your life with His strength and presence. Your life will glow even as Moses’ face shone with the glory of God. Your life will glow with confidence and trust in God. The reward of prayer will not be the praise of men. It will not be earthly and vanishing earthly things. But the reward will be things you experience in your soul. The peace of God, contentment, heavenly-mindedness, patience, and comfort. Oh, all the blessings that are found at God’s right hand-even joy forevermore-are to be found in the secret chamber of prayer. Go there. The way is open through Jesus Christ.
Let us often, and with great joy, enter into the secret place of prayer.
Let us pray.
Father, grant to us that in our prayers we may seek Thy face. Amen.