Thorny Topics
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Prayer: Public vs. Private


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“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. 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.” ~ Matthew 6:5-6

In a recent conversation, a brother in Christ asked, “Based on this scripture, do you think we should pray corporately in Church?”

This was indeed a thorny question, because current church worship/activities often involves quite a bit of public prayer. Is the church ignoring a key command of Christ? Was this a general command, an overarching principle or a context-limited instruction?

To gain better insight, let us consider the Biblical record:

First, Jesus’: we can examine where Jesus prayed. The Bible has few records of Jesus praying openly. Perhaps, the most notable of these are when Jesus called out to God (The Father) on the cross and, as my brother reminded, when He prayed before raising Lazarus from the dead. Most references of Jesus praying involve a secluded setting (e.g., Mark 1:35; Matthew 26:36-44; John 17)

Second, we can examine what Jesus’ said about individuals that did pray openly. In Luke 19, in a parable, Jesus spoke of two men who had prayed openly in the Temple. He commended one man, a publican, while rebuking the other man, a Pharisee.

It is from this story that we may gain the keenest insight on public/corporate prayer, because Jesus’ points out clearly that the key difference between the two men was their attitude. The publican was overwhelmed by his own sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. The Pharisee was consumed by his own (conceived) superiority to others. Therefore, the publican’s public prayer brought attention to God, while the Pharisee’s public prayer brought attention to himself.

Considering the above points, we conclude,

  • Public praying is not in itself a sin (otherwise, Jesus would have rebuked the publican too)
  • The main issue Jesus was focusing on in our text was ATTITUDE/MOTIVE. Specifically, The key clause in Matthew 6:5 is, “that they may be seen of men”

If our public praying brings attention to ourselves (our superiority) rather than to God (His mercy and grace), then we have a problem: that kind of prayer is not pleasing to God. Consequently, we should be very careful to minimize self and maximize God when praying, especially in public.

Finally, Jesus does give us a guiding principle in Matthew 6:6: i.e., Focus your efforts on private prayer. We should follow His example and spend much of our prayer time alone, in a lonely place.

It is very difficult to ignore the people around us when we pray publicly. Hence, we often pray in a “withholding” way. i.e., we leave out the ‘bad stuff’. We guard our words so that we don’t divulge too much about our own personal struggles. By doing so, many of us often pray a little dishonestly in public.

Conversely, when praying in private we have no need to ‘keep our guards up’; we can ‘let go’, we can be our true selves. Hence, in private, away from the crowd, we pray far more sincerely. And Scripture suggests that God is much more pleased with that sincerest form of prayer.

This article arose from discussions with Franklyn Cuffe.

7 Comments

  1. Pingback: Shut the Door, Please « Broken Believers

  2. vivian robb says

    “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” ACTS1:14

    This is a rare but an open prayer by Jesus…..John 1:41-42: “So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

    So in verse 41, Martha allow the stone to be rolled away, and Jesus prays to the Father! Jesus thanked the Father that He had already heard Him. He knew what was going to happen; so His prayer was for the benefit of the people that they might see this mighty miracle that was about to happen with their own eyes and believe He was from God.

    Verse 43: “When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

    • Nash Lacsina says

      Hi Vivian,

      Thank you very much for the posts. Sorry if I am jumping into the discussion quite belatedly, but I believe I need to share a few things about the Bible verses you mentioned and the subject on hand.

      It was very humbling for me to learn a few years ago that one of the most basic principles in rightly dividing the Word of God is to understand the difference between what Scripture DESCRIBES and what Scripture PRESCRIBES.

      Just because something is DESCRIBED in Scripture does not mean it is PRESCRIBED by Scripture. The blessed passages that you mentioned do a spectacular job in describing particular faith-edifying events in Scripture. However, they do not actually prescribe anything, except Jesus’ instructions to the people at Lazarus’ tomb to “Unbind” Lazarus “and let him go.”

      The corporate prayer meeting is a wonderful Jewish tradition that most probably began after the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple and the dragging of the Southern Kingdom into exile and Babylonian captivity. Pockets of repentant Jewish believers then began meeting in “houses of prayer” or “houses of learning” where they prayed and taught their families about the great God of Israel. These “houses of prayer” or “houses of learning” later on, came to be known as synagogues.

      Since many of the first century Christians grew up as Jews, it was only natural that they would continue with many Jewish traditions that did not contradict any of Christ’s teachings. And this wonderful tradition of corporate prayer continues to this day.

      It is very interesting to note that though that the corporate prayer meeting, while often DESCRIBED in Scripture is never PRESCRIBED in Scripture, but should not necessarily be abandoned because neither is it PROHIBITED by Scripture.

      What Scripture does PRESCRIBE is to pray continuously or to pray without ceasing, and as reflectionsintheword very correctly points out: “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.”

      If the Holy Spirit moves people to pray corporately, then let no one discourage them from doing so. However, if individuals would rather pray privately and not join prayer meetings, then let them do so without anyone discouraging them as well.

      Churches need to guard themselves against modern overzealous judaizers who want to lord it over the flock, by exerting even the slightest pressure on those who are not led by the Holy Spirit to join prayer meetings. There is absolutely no Biblical basis to pressure or cajole or embarrass or make believers feel guilty about not joining prayer meetings because they are not led by the Holy Spirit to participate.

      Churches must be very careful not to bind the believers’ conscience in matters where Scripture itself does not bind them.

      Who are we to make fellow believers feel that they are somehow less faithful because they do not participate in corporate prayer meetings when the Bible itself does not command this?

      May the LORD openly bless those who heed the Holy Spirit’s call to be more faithful to Christ’s own explicit command to pray privately, even if they do not participate in corporate prayer meetings. And may the LORD bless prayer meetings as a corporate expression of the Biblical imperative to humble ourselves before God and to pray continuously, to pray without ceasing. Thank you very much.

      Grace & Peacel!

    • Thanks for sharing Nash. You gave us MUCH to think about. And though i need to ponder it a bit more, there is a lot I agree with.

      Thanks again for sharing.

      God Bless!!!

  3. vivian robb says

    Maybe the key here is that the hypocrites wanted to be seen of men praying…….“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. 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.” ~ Matthew 6:5-6

  4. Pingback: Cheerleaders Defy Ban on Prayer Before Game - Page 7

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