Prayer That Pleases God (Matthew 6:5-8)

What are the principles Jesus taught for how to pray in a way that pleases God?

In Matthew 5, Jesus focused on the ethical righteousness of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 6, he begins to focus on the religious righteousness of the kingdom of God. How should disciples practice their religion in regard to giving alms, prayer, and fasting? In Matthew 6:5–8, Jesus specifically turned to the topic of prayer. These verses can be summarized in this way:

In Matthew 6:5–8, Jesus warned his disciples against performative and perfunctory prayer, and instead commands and commends personal prayer that pleases God.

Warning Against Performative Prayer

Let’s unpack that. First, in Matthew 6:5–8, Jesus warns his disciples against performative prayer. In v. 5, Christ says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.” According to Christ, there are religious hypocrites out there who pray a lot. Why do they pray? He says, “for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men.” That was their express motivation. Their prayers were being carried out in public as a performance for others to see. That’s why they chose the street corners. That’s why they chose the synagogues. Because these were places where they would receive the most attention.

For many Jews, therefore, the practice of prayer had degenerated into a display for other people’s approval. Wanting to be praised as pious and to be seen as ultra-religious, many of them would seek out the places where they would be noticed at the set times of prayer. But Christ says, “Don’t do that!” Don’t make your prayer a cover for the praise of men.

According to Christ, even prayer can be used in the service of our pride. Prayer, which is meant to be addressed to God, can actually be motivated by a sinful desire for attention from people.

Isn’t that wicked? And yet, that was what was going on the synagogues and the street corners in Galilee. Christ says, “Truly, they [that is, the religious hypocrites who love to be seen by men] have received their reward.” There’s something sinister sounding about that, and it’s supposed to sound sinister. Because Christ is saying, in effect, if what you want in prayer is the praise of other people, then that is all the reward you will ever get. Christ is saying, “God is not pleased with prayers that are driven by the motivation of pride.”

Warning Against Perfunctory Prayer

Secondly, Jesus also warns against perfunctory prayer. By perfunctory, I mean prayer carried out in a mindless, meaningless, mechanical sort of way. Look at v. 7, “And when you are praying, do not use vain repetitions [some translations say do not heap up empty phrases] as the Gentiles do, for they think in much speaking that they will be heard.” Listen to one commentator:

“Hypocrisy is a misuse of the purpose of prayer (diverting it from the glory of God to the glory of self); verbosity is a misuse of the very nature of prayer (degrading it from a real and personal approach to God into a mere recitation of words).”

That’s the key. Jesus wants his disciples to pray with the right purpose, and to pray according to the nature of what God has intended prayer to be. Is God pleased with what one person called “meaningless verbosity”? Is he pleased with the mere recitation of words or sounds? Listen to this quote:

“Jesus’ aim in this exhortation was not to condemn all lengthy prayers. Rather, he wished to dispel the delusion that a mere profusion of words could be pleasing to God.”

That’s what pagans superstitiously think. They are deluded about the true nature of prayer. And the fact that Jesus had to warn against this means that the disease of pagan thinking in relation to prayer had infected the Jewish population of his day in Galilee. Might we struggle with the same disease today?

Prayer That Pleases God

What is prayer that pleases God? Christ doesn’t just warn here, but in v. 6 and  v. 8 he tells us how to personally pray in order to please God. 

Private in Location

Here’s the first principle: Personal prayer that pleases God is truly private in location. Now, don’t hear me saying that corporate prayer in public worship is not pleasing to God. God has commanded public prayer. We have examples of corporate prayer in the Bible. But Jesus is not talking about corporate prayer in this passage. He’s talking about an individual’s religious life before God.

Look at v. 6, “But when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door…” The antidote to hypocritical prayer is hidden prayer. In other words, get into a place where it’s just you and God. Don’t be overly dogmatic about the necessity of an inner room. Jesus prayed on mountains and in the Garden of Gethsemane. The point is, do the opposite of the hypocrites. Your personal prayer needs to be private. No one else needs to hear you pray. No one else needs to know where you pray. No one else needs to know what you pray—it’s between you and God.

Of course, that might mean that you actually pray in a closet at your house. Or, it might mean you drive away to a field or go for a walk in the woods where you pour out your heart before the Father.

A Desire for God as Audience

That leads to a second principle. Personal prayer that pleases God seeks him as the personal audience. Jesus says, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” Those who pray in a way that pleases God come before him as their Father and want his audience. They want his attention. That is their priority.

What does it show about a person when they pray more publicly than privately? Listen to one quote:

“The public versus private antithesis is a good test of one’s motives; the person who prays more in public than in private reveals that he [or she] is less interested in God’s approval than in human praise.”

Isn’t that true? When a person is little before God in the secret place, but is much before God before others, you know that something is amiss in their relationship with God. Personal prayer that pleases God is done with the right motivation. It seeks after him, and wants his audience alone.

A Desire for God’s Approbation

That leads to the third principle. Personal prayer that pleases God desires only his approbation. When a disciple prays, they don’t just want God to pay attention to them. They pray because they want the reward that comes from him.

Notice what Jesus Christ says, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you…” He’s saying that if you pray secretly, your Father who is in secret and who sees in secret where no one else can will reward you.

You might ask, “What is that reward?” Is it crass materialism? Will God bless us with wealth and prosperity for praying in secret to him? Is that what Jesus is encouraging us to pray for? Of course not!

What do true disciples desire as a reward? They desire to live for the praise, commendation, and approbation of God. They want his favor over their lives. Approbation just means God’s approval. And that’s the distinction. True prayer is done out of a desire to please God, so that God would approve of me and shine the light of his face on my life, in my family, in my church. That’s what a disciple craves, name, God’s gracious favor. They crave his smiling face resting upon them. That’s the reward.

With Correct Understanding

There’s a fourth principle for praying Jesus’ way. Without this, everything else I’ve said means nothing. Personal prayer that pleases God approaches him with correct theology.

Jesus said of the pagans, “They think [or suppose] that they will be heard because of their many words.” What drives pagans to think that mindless and mechanical repetition will get the gods to hear them? It is faulty theology! They think that they have to get the attention of the gods they serve. They think that their gods will be pleased with the mere movement of their lips. But is that correct? Is that how we should approach God our Father? As if he wasn’t interested in the needs of his children? As if we needed to ply for his attention with menial religious observance?

You see, when we pray, we must approach God with right understanding. We must know the God to whom we are praying. Isn’t that what Jesus says in v. 8? He says, “Don’t be like them.” We ought not think and pray like pagans. Why not? Jesus says, “For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Your Father knows your needs. He doesn’t have to be informed of your needs. He’s not like the dumb idols who are unconcerned with human life. He is not generally annoyed by interacting with humankind. In fact, even before you come to him, he knows your needs because he is intimately concerned with and for you. Listen to this quote:

“There is no need to go to great lengths to draw [the Father’s] attention. On the contrary, the needs of His children are His constant fatherly concern.”

Do you believe that? Do you believe that your personal needs are God’s concern? They are. And according to Jesus, knowing this will keep us praying in a proper way. The reality of God’s familiarity with me and my life carries me into true prayer according to Jesus. Prayer is not getting God to notice me. He already notices me and knows me. True prayer is communion (fellowship) with a Father who has my interests in his sights already, since he is omniscient and loves me.


No matter how long you’ve been a Christian, the concern of your religious life this week (and until you die) should consist in this: Who you are in secret before God.

Listen to what John Owen said about ministers:

“A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is, and no more.”

That applies to every believer. What a person is on his or her knees in secret before God Almighty, that he or she is, and no more. Who we are in secret, is who we really are. And if our religion consists merely in public attendance of certain religious meetings, then we are the religious hypocrites that Jesus is talking about. Shame on us if that be the case. If we are drawing near to God with our lips publicly, while our hearts are far from him privately through neglect of private prayer—then it is time to amend our ways. To repent and to return to God in the secret place.

Take time to meditate this week on the reality that God already knows what you need. Isn’t that what Peter says? “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).

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