Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene, Heinrich Hofmann, 1890

Jesus prayingDuring the Sermon on the Mount, continuing his lesson regarding hypocrisy, Jesus instructed his followers on the proper way to pray. He told them:

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites who pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners in order to be seen by others for they have received their reward in full.

When you pray, go into your room and close the door. God, who sees what is done in secret, will hear you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans who think they will be heard because of their many repetitious words. There is no need for long speeches for God knows what you need before you even ask him.

This is how you should pray:

‘Our father in heaven, hallowed by your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.’

If you forgive others people when they sin against you, God will also forgive you.

What the story means to us today

Prayers should be to God – not Men

Continuing his theme of hypocrisy, Jesus’ explained the true meaning of “prayer” and noted that it should be done for the right reasons. Jesus is not saying that we should never pray in public but rather, our prayers should be between us and God, not us and men. Prayers made to demonstrate righteousness before others are really prayers to men, not God. God hears our prayers wherever we are located and there is no need for an elaborate, public display.

Additional thoughts and considerations

The Lord’s Prayer in the book of Luke

In the Gospel of Luke, a variation of the Lord’s Prayer is given. Although very close in content, the circumstances in which Jesus taught the prayer differed (in Luke’s version of the prayer, Jesus taught the prayer in response to a disciple’s question regarding how to pray). It is quite possible that Jesus used this prayer on multiple occasions as an example of how to pray.

Sincere prayer, not repetition of unfelt words

Jesus praying on the mountainPrayer should be sincere and not a mere repetitious recitation of memorized, unfelt words. As a biblical scholar once said, “All of us have one routine prayer in our system and once we get rid of it, then we can really start to pray.”

Repetition in prayer, which is somewhat akin to begging, demonstrates an inherent disbelief, a lack of confidence that God will fulfill our prayer unless we repeat our words.

Recognize too, that when Jesus presented what we’ve come to know as The Lord’s Prayer, he did not command the disciples to “pray in these words” but rather to “pray in this manner”. The Lord’s Prayer is not necessarily a prayer to be repeated each time we pray but rather, a formula for how to pray properly.

Prayer is not a means to have your will done, but rather a means to accomplish God’s will

It is important to recognize that prayer is not a means to have your will done in heaven but conversely, to have God’s will accomplished on Earth. We pray to ask God’s assistance in accomplishing what we know he would desire (a natural behavior for those acting in a Christian manner).

It is also worthy to note that The Lord’s Prayer begins with an acknowledgement of God’s divinity and ends with an admission that we, as humans, are not infallible.

Praying for the impossible – testing God’s patience

Many have pondered whether or not they can pray for the impossible. For instance, can we pray for the Moon to fall from the sky and expect results? Of course not. “Impossible” prayers such as this are not only against God’s will, but outside the laws of nature, which of course, God governs, not man. God specifically warns us against testing him in this manner (“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”). In fact, many scholars believe that as such, prayer itself cannot, and should not be examined under the wrong motive (see examples of unusual scientific “prayer tests” below) and any effort to do so is futile.

The science and history behind the story

Jews praying in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, from an 1878 painting by Maurycy GottliebDoes prayer really work?

It’s a question that every Christian secretly asks himself from time to time – does prayer really work? It’s nothing to be ashamed of – nobody ever said “faith” was easy – but nobody can deny that God’s suggestion to pray is beneficial to us – if it is done correctly (i.e. with purpose, and focus).

Scientific research has proven that prayer works – and all major religions prescribe some sort of prayer to their followers. When scientists *do* criticize prayer, it is typically because they fear it will replace medical (scientific) treatment itself. Still, we must be careful when attempting to put a mortal take on God’s gift of prayer. As Jesus told us here, prayer is between man and God only.

In all religions, the act of praying inherently consists of a form of self-reflection and self-awareness combined with a sense of connection to God, something bigger than all of us. This “tying” of our inner self (our soul) to God through a form of thoughtful, quiet communication produces an astounding array of benefits. Prayer provides the following:

  • Promotes a sense of optimism. As a practice, prayer is the setting of an intention, a resolution which points us in the right direction (again, assuming the prayer supports God’s will).
  • Gives us time to appreciate the positives in life which provides a sense of security, calmness, and ease.
  • Helps delay gratification and controls impulsive actions while cultivating rational thinking.
  • Encourages and promotes the ability to see things from a broader perspective.
  • Helps develop the ability to focus and concentrate.
  • Helps train the brain to be more positive, aware, and focused which shifts the habits of the mind and thus, alters our patterns of behavior.
  • Research has proven that prayer reduces anxiety, lowers blood pressure, stabilizes sleep patterns, and even impacts autonomic functions like breathing and digestion.
  • New research suggests that through the above listed behavioral changes, the neural pathways themselves are altered which means, prayer may produce beneficial *physical* changes in our brains.

The above are examples of the “worldly” benefits of prayer that do not even take into consideration the divine “hotline” prayer opens between us and God! Even given our present miniscule understanding of the world and universe around us, it is easy to see that God’s (and Jesus’) instruction to pray was stunningly beyond its time.

Francis GaltonFrancis Galton’s 1872 study proving payer “does not work” – a lesson in silliness

Many who argue that prayer does not work will point out Francis Galton’s “historic” 1872 study in which within his set of parameters, he determined that prayer produces no effect. Christian readers who are aware of the context and setting in which the study took place, will note the futility and ignorance of the attempt Galton made to “communicate with God”.

Galton was a Victorian scientist and unknown to many, a cousin of Charles Darwin (of Theory of Evolution fame). In 1872, Galton set out to prove that payer does not work. He mockingly told readers, “If prayer really worked then members of the Royal Family would live forever because of all the people praying for them every Sunday at church.”

To test his theory that prayer was ineffective, Galton initiated a surprisingly silly experiment – he prayed over random plots of land to see whether the plants would grow any faster. Not surprisingly, they did not. The study proved offensive to Christians but Galton stubbornly stood by his standings despite the fact that his “prayer” was in no means a true attempt to communicate with God (Galton was an atheist).

Regardless of his findings, the absurdity of the study of course invalidates the results. It is obvious to Christians that despite his intelligence, Galton lacked the mental, emotional, and spiritual capacity to pray properly.

As for Galton himself, he went on to realize several scientific achievements. However, his life was fraught with mental problems that resulted in multiple mental breakdowns which eventually forced him to end his scientific studies entirely. Galton spent his later years writing a bizarre novel in which he proposed a “eugenic religion” designed to weed out weaker humans and breed a better and smarter species. Publishers turned away from his work and when the draft copy was given to his niece, she burnt much it, disgusted and offended by the bizarre graphic sex scenes Galton depicted.

Many scientific studies demonstrate prayer does indeed work

Duke University Medical Center study (1989)

Virgin in Prayer, circa 1675, Denver Art MuseumThere is remarkable evidence that prayer can produce miraculous results beyond what science can rationally explain. For instance, in 1989 a Duke University Medical Center study of 150 cardiac patients found that those who “received intercessory prayer” (i.e. were prayed for), had the highest success rate recovering from cardiac events. The study was even more remarkable because it was a double-blind study! Neither researchers nor those receiving the prayer knew the patients were being prayed for. This study suggests there was some sort of intervening variable – something which science simply cannot explain.

San Francisco General Hospital study (1988)

A similar double-blind study was conducted at San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit in 1988. The study produced similar results as the 1989 Duke University Medical Center study. Researchers found that those who were “prayed for” showed a significantly diminished need for imminent critical care and experienced fewer deaths.

William S. Harris duplicate study (1999)

In 1999, William S. Harris attempted to replicate the 1988 San Francisco study under even stricter experimental conditions. Harris’s study concluded that “supplementary, remote, blinded, intercessory prayer produced a measurable improvement in the medical outcomes of critically ill patients”.

Other studies prove prayer works

The above mentioned studies are not isolated events. Other scientific studies have been conducted with proper, faith-based prayer and reached the same or similar conclusions. A 1997 study by O’Laoire measured the positive effects of prayer on agents performing the prayer and on the beneficiaries of the prayer. In 1998, Fred Sicher conducted a double-blind randomized study of patients with advanced AIDS. In 2001, a study by Leonard Leibovici used records of 3,393 patients at the Rabin Medical Center to study retroactive prayer (praying for patients *after* the medical event concluded). In all instances, the studies produced positive results indicating that despite a scientific understanding of how or why, prayer does indeed work.

Notes on Biblical translation

Praying in your “room”

The word translated as “room” refers to an inner room of a house, one without windows, that offers the utmost privacy.  It does not explicitly imply a bedroom.

Our “father”, who art in heaven

The original Semitic word translated to “father” was likely “abba”. It is not the exact equivalent of “Dad” but does suggest a close, familial relationship.

Give us our “daily” bread

Interestingly, the word translated to “daily”, as in “give us today the bread we need for today”, does not occur anywhere outside the New Testament. Thus, it is impossible to translate fully. Suggestions include “daily”, “the coming day”, or “for existence”.

“For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen”

Some translations include this sentence as the final line in the Lord’s Prayer. Most scholars believe this was likely composed for the liturgy of the early church (a scribe probably added the phrase for public scripture reading). Other evidence in the Bible (and historical references) suggest it should not be included in the translation and thus, it is often missing in modern-day translations.

Bible Text

"Prayer without End" (1656), oil on canvas, 134 x 113 cm, Rijksmuseum, AmsterdamNIV

5 “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 others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 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. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

5 “And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?

6 “Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

7–13 “The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:

Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best—as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

14–15 “In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

"Old Woman Praying," by Matthias Stom (Flemish painter, 1600-c. 1649), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkThe NET Bible

6:5 “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. 6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. 6:7 When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. 6:8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 6:9 So pray this way:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored, 6:10 may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 6:11 Give us today our daily bread, 6:12 and forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors. 6:13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. 6:14 “For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 6:15 But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 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. 7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. 9 After this manner therefore pray ye:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database, Annals of Internal Medicine (2000), Science Daily, Arizona State University, Duke University, San Francisco General Hospital