“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded by Matthew
As followers of Christ, we are enjoined to “pray without ceasing,” and “devote yourselves to prayer, keeping watchful and thankful in it.” Along with the Biblical reminders we are often driven to prayer by difficulties or set-backs in our lives. We should pray in these times. The problem comes in when these prayers of duty or prayers of importunate need are what define one’s prayer life. There is much more to praying than asking or telling our God what we need or want from Him. Even more so, if our praying is mostly done in public, we may be evidencing a misunderstanding of the nature or prayer.
Prayer, as Billy Graham told us, is a two-way conversation with our God. It is how we communicate our love, communion and companionship with the One who is closer to us than any other. As in any intimate relationship, two-way communication and intimate conversation are vital to a strong, deep love and commitment with our God.
Praying is the most important form of communication in which we can engage. Thankfully, there are some very clear instructions to us in the Gospels as well as examples in the epistles to guide us in how we should approach our God in prayer. One set of clarifying instructions come from Jesus, recorded in Matthew 6:5-8. This passage is a part of His words in the “Sermon on the Mount.” The context of His instructions is what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” which follows immediately after. We can better understand Lord’s Prayer in light of these instructions given by Jesus.
In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus begins with these words: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus is pointing out that prayer is to be primarily a conversation between our God and His children, not an audience-focused event. When we make it an audience-focused event, we are no longer praying to our God. We are addressing the crowd.
Do we pray in public at times? Yes. We have prayers recorded in the scriptures that were prayed in public. David at the coronation of Solomon as the next king. Solomon at the dedication of the temple. Jesus at the return of the seventy from a mission tour, and again on the night He was betrayed. The church leaders in the Book of Acts after being threatened by the Council.
Praying in public is not the issue. Motive is key. If our praying is with one eye on the audience, with a mind toward what they will think of the prayer or how they will respond to it, we are double minded in our praying. Our prayers are intended to be conversations with our God. As such, they are to God-centered, God-inspired, and God-directed. Remembering that we are talking with our God and not to the room is a critical mind-set for us when praying with a group. We must be to be focused on our God and not anyone else.
It is clear that Jesus intends for us to spend most of our prayer time praying alone in private. This makes sense when we consider that our praying is a two-way conversation, a time of intimate communion and companionship. Praying is an expression of our ongoing awareness of His presence within us. It is a time in which He desires to speak with us, not simply listen to us. Our most intimate and deep conversations are best expressed privately.
Our relationship with our God is an abiding companionship of intimate oneness with Him. It is intended to express a deep, intimate, and familiar communion between the parties. At the same time, it is a relationship between the Great God of all Creation and one of the created beings, which requires both earnestness and respect.
Praying can be both intimately personal and earnestly respectful. Our conversations with our God are to be the respectful expressions of our unique selves. We are addressing our God, the Almighty, who also happens to be our closest confidant. Healthy praying expresses a balance between appropriate respect, worship and awe along with a sense of union and intimate companionship.
Jesus directs us not to the public forum for our prayers, but to the private chamber. When it comes to intimate conversations with our God and Father, He intends that they be just that – intimate. When alone with Him in secret, we need not bore Him with repeating the same requests for the same things. No intimate communion grows when side is telling the other only what needs doing and how it should be done. There is no deep love or communion to which such conversation can contribute.
Jesus begins talking about prayer with a reminder that such conversations are best had in secret, one-to-one with the Father, and not mostly in public forums. Companionship with our God or with anyone else requires exclusive intimacy. This makes sense, for what deep and intimate relationship can be healthy if the two parties talk only in crowded rooms?
In the next post, we will unpack the rest of the words of Jesus about praying found in Matthew 6:5-8