As Jesus continues through his sermon on the mount, he continually returns us to matters of the heart. Most people in his day knew that prayer and fasting were important spiritual disciplines, and we see Jesus himself spend time praying and fasting.
Jesus, however, was speaking to a crowd of spiritually sick people. 2,000 years later, that same sickness still runs rampant in our modern culture. Many people in the crowd, religious leaders included, believed they earned God’s approval by appearing spiritual. Deep down, they knew they were sinful people. But they also believed that if could convince everyone around them of their own holiness, then perhaps God would also think they were holy.
To prove their holiness, they would pray, loudly, out in the streets. They would sometimes do this for hours at a time, working to impress everyone with their “holy” life. In the same way, when they spent time fasting they took steps to ensure everyone knew they were fasting. Not only would they stop eating food, but they would stop bathing and look proclaim their misery. They wanted people to see how huge of a sacrifice they were making for the Lord.
If you’ve ever watched Professional Soccer or Basketball, you’re familiar with the term “flopping.” This occurs when a player gets lightly bumped into by another player. In order to get the attention of the referee, once bumped the player will throw his/her arms up in the air and make a dramatic fall. For awhile the approach worked, but most agreed it was ruining the spirit of the game and a ridiculous act. In the age of things like replay, a player can even be fined for flopping.
The religious people of Jesus’ day were professional floppers. They were not actually holy, they simply wanted to grab the attention of others so they could be identified as righteous and feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, their behavior was entirely against the spirit of the Gospel.
The Heart of Prayer and Fasting
In these verses, Jesus calls people to pray and fast “in secret.” He is not saying there is no place for corporate prayer. He is not saying that if you fast you have to make up crazy explanations for why you aren’t eating dinner. Rather, he is returning people to the heart of prayer and fasting.
Ultimately, prayer and fasting is about strengthening our relationship with God. It is meant to increase our dependence on Him, rather than increase our dependency on our own works.
Prayer and fasting are reminders that we cannot save ourselves, that we need God to provide for us in every way. As we seek Him out, He works in our hearts and changes us. He makes us to be more like Him.
When we make prayer and fasting about our own glory, then we demonstrate our lack of faith in the work of Christ. He has done everything we need for salvation on the cross, we don’t need to earn it by appearing more spiritual than everyone else. Instead, we should rest in his work and use prayer and fasting as a way to seek and honor God.
Practical Approach to Prayer
Not only does Jesus urge us to return to the heart of prayer and fasting, he gives us a template for prayer. We don’t need to babble on like the Pagans do (again, nothing wrong with a long prayer, unless that prayer is going long because you’re trying to prove how spiritual you are).
There are plenty of detailed dives into these verses out there, and many better than the one I’m about to give. My goal here is to simply give a quick introduction. If you want more info on how to pray, then I’d encourage you to check out this sermon from Tim Keller.
1: Spend Time in Praise and Thanks
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus begins his prayer by praising God. We should do the same. It’s easy to start praying with a list of needs or wants, but there is great wisdom in starting with gratitude and praise. It reminds us that God is our Father and what He has already done in our lives, which makes it easier to have faith in what He will do.
2: Present your requests to God
Give us this day our daily bread,
Prayer is a great opportunity to ask God for what we need. As Jesus points out, God already knows what we need. He still likes for us to ask for things, however. Why? Two quick reasons: First, when we ask for things and God gives them, we know where they come from. Second, anyone who is a parent knows the delight of giving their child things they ask for.
3. Confess your sins
and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Sin damages your relationship with those you sin against. Repentance and forgiveness restores those relationships. Not only should we use prayer as an opportunity to seek forgiveness from God, but also to seek the strength to forgive those who have sinned against us.
4. Ask for help in Spiritual Growth
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
It’s important to remember that we are saved AND sanctified by grace. Prayer gives us a chance to seek God’s grace and ask him to work in our hearts. Temptation will always be there, but prayer and God’s work gives us the strength to resist temptation.
To Be a Light in the World
How does private prayer and fasting enable you to be a light in the world? Prayer reminds us of who we are and what God has done in our lives. Prayer places us at the feet of Jesus and through prayer he transforms our heart. We are a light because He is a light, and by living in His presence the more we are able to reflect his light to the world. Prayer and fasting reminds us that being a light is not about our own efforts, but about the work of Christ.
Not only that, but prayer gives us an opportunity to pray for our work and for others. It helps us to see God’s hand in everything, and it enables us to depend on His power instead of our own power. Nehemiah demonstrates a great example of the importance of prayer, especially for leaders.
So if you want to be a light in the world, spend time in prayer and fasting. Seek God and His power, rest in His saving work, allow Him to work in your heart, and see what He does in your life and the life of others.
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