Earlier this year, Roy Costner IV of Liberty High School made national headlines when ripped up his valedictorian speech and read the Lord’s Prayer at his high school graduation. It was in protest of his school district’s recent decision to ban prayer at graduation ceremonies, and the move was met with cheers and applause (this is South Carolina we’re talking about). It was a courageous move, no doubt, but it raised a few questions, too.
On a purely theological level, what is prayer? Can a prayer be a protest? Can we even judge when prayer is truly seeking God’s heart and when it’s being wielded as some sort of political statement? And when Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 6 to pray in their closets instead of public, well, what are we to make of that?
All of this highlights just how much of a mystery prayer really is.
On my worst days, prayer is usually reserved for Bible reading, meal times, or when I’m running on fumes and miles from the gas station. I’m not very good at it. But even the phrase “not very good at prayer” sounds wrong, doesn’t it? It suggests that prayer is some sort of sport or hobby like origami or bareknuckle boxing. Perhaps some people just aren’t cut out for it.
But of course prayer requires no great skill for it to be effective. The prayer of a 3-year-old believer in Christ can be just as beautiful and right as the pastor pushing 80. Whatever vocabulary we use, regardless of how many “ums” we insert or however many times we repeat the words “just” or “God” in stop-gap fashion, if we ask it in Christ’s name, it will be heard and answered. Our identity is in the Word of God made flesh, not the words of prayer made spiritual.
And I know that, but again, I never feel that I’m very good at prayer. Allow me to explain. As a part of my job, I have to pray in front of other people at multiple times during the week. Maybe it’s just more difficult for us introverts, but praying out loud is such a strange experience. There you are, speaking to the God who knows you the best and yet loves you the deepest, and other people are listening in. It almost seems rude and intrusive.
When I’m reading my Bible, I don’t mind praying out loud. But when other ears are listening, I suddenly feel like a performer. Maybe you can relate. I become nervous and self-conscious about how my words are coming across, even if I understand that I’m talking to God and not to them.
My faith is personal. Many of my prayers are private and silent (like when I’m walking gingerly around a hornet). In fact, Jesus tells His disciples to pray in their closets (Matthew 6:6), out of sight. But if you share a closet with a roommate or a spouse, you might find such a model of prayer difficult. It could be awkward if they open the door to get a hoodie and find you kneeling there in the dark.
So what are we to make of verbal prayers before listening ears? What exactly is Jesus talking about? As one of my professors is fond of saying, “Context is king.” When you look at the beginning of Matthew 6, Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before me to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
To be noticed by them. In Matthew 6, when Jesus tells His disciples to pray in the closet (which could also be translated as “inner room”), He wasn’t so much concerned with the location of the prayer as He was the motivation of the heart.
Jesus wasn’t contrasting public prayer as opposed to private prayer. He was contrasting arrogance with humility. That’s the sort of prayer Jesus is condemning: arrogant, notice-me prayer. It’s not the sort of prayer that gets nervous over being heard by others. It’s the sort of prayer that loves to be heard by others. It swaggers in self-righteousness piety and begs for more holy limelight.
Jesus has a word for people who pray in that way. He calls them hypocrites (Matthew 6:5). Despite their many gracious words, they aren’t praying to God at all. They’re praying in order to be noticed. Jesus says, “They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men” (emphasis mine).
Such bloated religious babbling pretends to be prayer, but it is nothing of the kind. They aren’t prayers that seek to reflect God’s glory. Such “prayers” are only mirrors that reflect the hypocrisy of the heart.
Jesus doesn’t condemn practicing your righteousness before men. Prayer doesn’t have to be “good,” as I so often get nervous about. Christ no more condemns public prayer than He condemns public giving to the poor. Jesus Himself practiced righteousness before men and people glorified God for it (Matthew 15:31; Mark 2:12; Luke 18:43).
In fact, from the parent praying with his child to the small group member asked to close in prayer, all Christians are required to model righteousness in public (Matthew 5:14-16). The question is, “How can we pray publicly in a way that is neither hypocritical nor arrogant?”
I would encourage you to get a hold of The Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us by Jerram Barrs. It’s easily the best book on prayer I have ever read. Here are some practical tools for keeping your prayer pure from hypocrisy.
Pray in private
Just because Jesus wasn’t talking about private vs. public prayer per se doesn’t mean that the distinctions don’t matter. Again, what matters is the posture of your heart.
I have found that when I have consistent private prayer with my Father, I have less fear of how I sound when I’m praying out loud amidst my brothers and sisters. I tend to focus on God more and notice people less because I’m so used to it.
Pray for the reward of God
When you pray to strut your personal piety so that people notice your righteousness, congratulations. You’ve gotten what you were looking for. But if you practice your righteousness before God (privately or publicly), your Father will reward you by lavishing His love onto your heart and conforming us to His Son’s image.
Think about what you’re actually saying. When I get nervous, I tend to talk faster. When I’m worried about how righteous my prayers will sound to others, my anxiety speeds up my words and I use fillers like “just” or “God” or “Lord” just to give my brain time to catch up to where my runaway prayer is going.
Slow down your words. Be intentional. It will remind you that prayer is not a mirror to reflect your own righteousness.