“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NLT).
In using the word “hypocrites”, Jesus referred to many of the Pharisees and other religious leaders who wanted people to think they were holy. They even used public prayer to get attention (Eugene H. Peterson paraphrased verse 5 in The Message as: “[When] you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production… All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?”). Jesus called them hypocrites because they were not actually praying to God; instead, they were putting on a show for an audience who would revere them for their apparent holiness. Their motive was pride.
Now, by saying, “when you pray”, Jesus was assuming that his followers would pray. He wasn’t saying people shouldn’t pray in the synagogues (or church) or even on “street corners” for that matter, but that prayers shouldn’t be done for show. We find the reality and depth of prayer not in public but in private communication with God. Corporate, public prayer can be powerful, and such prayers were vital to the early church and have an important place in churches today. But people who pray more in public than in private should consider their motives. If they really want to communicate and fellowship with God, they should go alone into a room, “shut the door” and pray. Praying only where others will notice may indicate that their real intention is to please people, not God. The only “reward” or results from the prayers of hypocritical religious leaders would be esteem from their earthly audience.
The prayer life of Jesus’ followers should differ radically. When we pray in public, pride can easily creep in. We can be overly concerned with using the right words and phrases, or about being politically and religiously correct. We may even be tempted to use prayer to spread gossip about others or to let everyone know of our spiritual accomplishments. But in private prayer, we eliminate pride from our motives; we humbly pour out our emotions to God, express our true thoughts and feelings, and listen in the quiet for God’s answers.
Think about this: Prayer should be a habit and a vital part of our lives. Apostle Paul wrote that Christians should “never stop praying” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), implying that we should pray at all times of the day and in all locations, including home, office, school, malls, and presumably, “street corners.” Most believers today probably won’t shout out prayers in a crowded mall or business district, but we may be tempted to make a show of our piety in religious settings (worship services, small groups, Sunday school classes, prayer meetings, Bible studies, etc.). At those times, we should guard our motives, remembering that God is our primary audience, not the people in the group. Our biggest problem, however, is that we may limit our prayers to those locations. Instead, God wants to hear from us as we drive, before and during important meetings, while working in the kitchen or garden – in all of life’s routines. We also need to spend extended time with the door closed behind us, listening to our Father and humbly presenting ourselves and our need to him.
Where will you choose as your place of private prayer?
When will you begin to spend personal time with your Father?
THINK BIG. START SMALL. GO DEEP.