Praying in Secret and P-p-praying in Public
Matthew 6:1, 5-8 says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven…. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
The church is a visible community of people. There is no escaping the fact that if you want to be a Christian, you do so in community with others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that in calling the disciples to a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, the disciples would inevitably fulfill this in public ways, and that they needed to have a motive which lies beyond being visible for the sake of being visible. “Our activity must be visible, but never done for the sake of making it visible. ‘Let your light so shine before men’ (Matt. 5:16) and yet: Take care that you hide it!” Bonhoeffer’s point—one we see throughout the Scripture—is that the motive of the heart is what counts. When you’re following Jesus, seeking fame because of your piety is the furthest thing from your mind. And yet, as the Lord’s Prayer says, lead us not into temptation. God, don’t let us succumb to the temptation to be noticed by others when we’re praying in public.
One aspect of praying in public that we all deal with is wondering what others are thinking. Will I say the right words? Will my words come out cleanly or will I stutter? And we stop ourselves from participating in this basic Christian practice, one that we should all be masters at in a sense. Just imagine how much more praying we might do if more of us decided to let go of our fears of praying out loud?
I also have my own theory of how the two are related. Christians will practice at home the kinds of praying they hear in church. This relates to content. Have you ever noticed how little children will pray the same words they hear their parents pray? The same is true for adults. We use the same phrases as others. Our content is shaped by what types of prayers we hear in church also: thanksgiving and intercession and praise. This also applies to time. Because very little time is given in corporate worship to prayer, very little time is given at home.
It is therefore imperative that Christians broaden their horizons and find models for prayer outside of Sunday mornings. This is one reason why our church emphasizes small group involvement in a group that prays as part of its gatherings. At the same time, it’s imperative that Christians pray on their own.
One form of prayer that is simple to incorporate on your own is breath prayer. In breath prayer, you pick one sentence and say it from time to time all day long. Say the first part as you breathe in, and the second as you breathe out. Examples (and they are endless) include:
- Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner (also called the Jesus Prayer from Luke 18).
- Abba, I belong to you.
- Healer, speak the word and I shall be healed.
- Shepherd, bring home my lost son/daughter.
- Holy One, keep me holy.
- Lord, here I am.
Christ did not come to teach us how to pray and leave us in fear of doing it. Christ did not come to build His Church just so we could pay people to pray for us. Christ came and called us to discipleship, part of which is praying both in secret and in public.