“Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There are numerous books out there offering readers an intro on how to pray. I even read one simply called that: How to Pray. A quick Amazon search for “prayer books” turns up more results than you can click through. As you read through the Scriptures, there are lots of examples of prayer to study and emulate. Many of these books examine one or another of these prayers. The reason for all of this interest is pretty straightforward: We want to know how to pray. We want to know that our prayers are meaningful and have some reasonable chance of accomplishing their aim. We want to know that when we speak aloud in an empty room we’re not just talking to ourselves. Well, at the risk of doing little more than dripping a drop of water in an already flooded market, let’s take a second this morning and talk about prayer.
As a matter of fact, we’re going to take this week to look at Jesus’ words on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Today and tomorrow, we’ll start with His introduction to His model prayer, and then Thursday, Lord willing, we’ll walk through the model itself. Here in His introduction to prayer, Jesus offers us two things not to do, each paired with a corrective. The things Jesus advises us against here both get at the heart of some false thinking we have about God. And this makes sense, too. False thinking about God always results in our doing things in ways that are at best not helpful. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
The first point of false doctrine Jesus address is the belief that religiosity is a means of social advancement or personal gain. There are people who pray because they want to be seen praying. In His day, members of the religious elite would do just what He describes here. They would make sure they were scheduled to pray in the synagogues at very public times and then launch into long, flowery prayers covering all manner of things. People would leave the synagogue marveling at how spiritual or deep or wise these men (because they were all men) were. At other times, these same folks would go and pray publicly. They wanted to be seen praying. They wanted to be known for their obvious devotion to the Lord. After all, who could pray like that except someone who was close to God? God must hear his prayers louder than He does my own.
Now, on the one hand, this doesn’t seem like it would be such a bad thing. Isn’t it good that people are thinking about prayer after hearing someone pray like this? If you are praying and getting lots and lots of “amens” and “yes, Lords,” doesn’t that show how well people are engaging with you in your petition of the Lord? Perhaps, but if they are more impressed with your praying than the God to whom your prayers are directed, you really haven’t done anything helpful for them at all. Your praying then ceases to be about building a relationship with God. It isn’t any longer even about exhorting others to pray. Instead, it becomes an exercise in attracting applause for your prayers.
This is why Jesus affixes the label of “hypocrite” to these kinds of folks. They are putting on a show of spirituality, but the reality is they are anything but that. They are about themselves, not God. And when you are about yourself like this, the show you put on and the accolades you receive from the people who have shown up to see it are all the reward you’ll get. You certainly shouldn’t expect anything from God, Jesus says. He knows our hearts. If our spirituality or religiosity are mostly about padding our image, we just may pad our image. But that’s the sum total of what we’ll do. That is no way to pray. It seems from a false belief that God is concerned in any way with how impressive our prayers sound.
The right way to think on this matter is to recognize that prayer is all about building a relationship with God. Our primary times and places of prayer should be when we are by ourselves. If your prayer life isn’t rich there, how rich it appears in public doesn’t matter at all. Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still pray in public occasionally. There is great precedent in the Scriptures for whole congregations praying together under the leadership of one person praying out loud. But these times must be structured and focused in the right direction. They must be about building a relationship with God as a group. The words here aren’t unimportant, but they are secondary to the genuine seeking out of God’s Spirit on the part of the group as a whole. Unity of heart and mind in these moments are critical.
If you want to really benefit from your praying, though, your first and best efforts must go to seeking God in secret. Grow and strengthen your relationship with Him in ways and places and times when only He and you know about it. Pursue Him with faithfulness and fervor from within the confines of your own heart. Build your trust in Him and love for Him, both of which are lived out publicly. Make certain that your relationship with Him when no one is watching is rock solid. When you do this in secret, He will reward you.
I should add one quick note of caution here. Some translations (notably the King James) add the word “openly” to the end of v. 6. This is because some ancient manuscripts have that word there. The most ancient and reliable manuscripts we have of Matthew, however, do not. It was almost certainly added by a later editor. Why it would be added should be obvious. It fits exactly with how we would like to hear what Jesus says. If we get our relationship with Him right in private, then He will reward us in public for our efforts. Most modern translations do not include “openly” (although they will note it as a possibility in the footnotes), and the reason for this should be equally obvious: It fits exactly with how we would like to hear what Jesus says. Jesus’ whole point was that prayer is not a tool for religious advancement. If there were some sort of clear correspondence between our private prayer and public success, perhaps we might pray more diligently in private, but our motives would be no more pure than the person who only prays in public. We would gradually start doing it for the rewards at which point we aren’t doing it to foster a closer, deeper relationship with God. We’re pursuing this relationship as a means to a personal end.
God will reward us for our pursuit of a relationship with Him. And, those rewards may be public. But they may also not be even remotely public. It may be that He gives us a greater and stronger trust in Him so we have what it takes to overcome some personal struggle we are facing. That may be something no one ever knows about. But we will. And that’s what matters. Our pursuit of God through prayer must be about our pursuit of God through prayer and nothing more. If we try to add anything to that, we’ll necessarily be taking away from it. If you want the kind of prayer life that achieves more than throwing words around the room, make sure its primary goal is the growth and strengthening of a relationship between you and your heavenly Father.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the second point of false doctrine Jesus addresses about prayer. If you want a hint, it’s all about what kind of a God we are pursuing with our prayers. See you then.