“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.