When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6: 5-6)
Once again, Jesus points to our intentions behind our actions. What is it we are doing when we pray in public? What is it that we think we are doing?
It is worth considering, since even in this day where performing acts of worship in public, particularly if you happen to be Christian, is more and more discouraged – or at least criticized. Even though the “marketplace” is open and public, factions of society dislike the presence of public displays of worship. And prayer in public is one of the disapproved displays. Prayer at the beginning of meetings or events gets treated as an infringement of the rights of non-believers, even though it does them no harm beyond a few moments of listening to something they don’t believe in (which can hardly be considered unusual in our lives, since we all have to listen to politicians whose views do not match ours).
Even so, a distinction can be made between a “public prayer” (one a leader makes on behalf of those gathered) and “prayer in public” (standing on a corner and making personal prayers out loud in the hearing of others).
What is it that a person is after, when they make a show of praying in public? What are they trying to do? For as Jesus says, Our Father hears our most secret prayers, our small hidden voices. And if He can hear those prayers, He certainly has no problem hearing the prayers we might make in crowded noisy places. When someone makes a point of praying out loudly, whose ears are they really trying to reach?
I’m sure we’ve all seen occasions where someone has used the moment to pray in public to rebuke someone present and listening, to lecture someone in the disguise of giving God the details of a situation. Or heard someone round off a hostile encounter with a very heavy-handed “God bless you!” in a voice that is really asking for something other than a blessing.
What are we expecting on those occasions? Are we even really interested in what God’s plans for the other person are at that moment?
Any time we start praying in public to make a particular point to someone present, someone other than God, we “already have our reward.” The person we’re trying to lecture hears us, certainly. He hears us lecturing God about the whys and wherefores that God already knows. What the listener does not hear is genuine concern for his well-being.
When we are called to pray for each other, to pray for those we don’t know, to pray for those in governance over us, to pray for our enemies, we are called to be concerned about that other person’s well-being, not the punishments we think they deserve, not the wisdom we think they need. We’re supposed to be remembering that every person is precious to God, that He wants to touch and save each of His creatures. When someone else prays for our Loved Ones, we are deeply touched by the discovery that others love our Beloveds as much as we do. But when we hear someone praying a lecture at our Beloved, we don’t react as well.
What happens then, when we pray privately, in secret?
Well, at the least, Jesus assures us that God hears those prayers. There is no place we can go that God cannot hear us. That is a pretty wonderful thing, as well as challenging. We cannot hide from God.
But when we come before Him privately, we are very aware that it is a conversation between ourselves and Him. We are much more aware that God doesn’t need lectures about situations, about what we know about someone that He doesn’t know. Because of the intimacy of private prayer, we become much more honest about why we are praying for someone. Is it simply duty? Or do we feel the need to rant and complain about someone – instead of praying for that person and their relationship with God? We end up exposing our own feelings about the subject of the prayer, which is what God wants from us. Until we open our hearts to Him, He cannot touch us (or others through us).
There are legal fights going on in America these days over the issue of prayer in public, institutionalized prayer. Some are fighting for the right to stand on the street corners and pray aloud in public – and they treat opposition to this as if it meant that they would not be allowed to pray at all. Why is this important to them? What do they believe is being served in praying on the street corner or in front of a public civic meeting before it begins? I realize that there is wisdom and power in calling for God's presence at such occasions, but does God somehow “hear better” when we do it in public than when we do it “secretly”? If we pray privately before the beginning of such a meeting, asking God’s blessing on all attending, His guidence for the work to be done, are we somehow lessening His effectiveness by doing it quietly and not in public? He “who sees what is done in secret”?
The reward of prayer is the time we spend with the Lord. If anything we do diminishes that intimacy, we should consider why we are proceeding that way. What are we trying to accomplish? Because for that sort of prayer, we “already have our reward.” Did you get what you wanted out of it?
Let us strive to be intimate and personal in all our prayers.