In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus paints a picture of someone praying in a public place.
The problem is not so much praying in public. Public prayers are a part of the life of the church. We need public prayers in corporate worship. We need prayers in small group settings, and in meetings of leaders, and in Sunday School classes. That is not the problem. The problem is why this person was praying in public.
Whenever I read this passage I always picture a religious leader of the day standing on a street corner lifting his arms and praying very loudly. I also picture them closing their eyes and every now and then they open them a little just—a squint, a peek—to make sure they are being watched.
Whether Jesus was talking about a religious leader or not, I cannot be sure. But outside of that I feel pretty good about the mental picture I have conjured. After all, Jesus does describe this person as a hypocrite. Think about what a hypocrite is. A hypocrite is someone who does something that looks one way but is contrary to who they really are. There is a lack of consistency, and it’s intentional. The person praying in Jesus’s example prays so others can see him praying. He wants to look like he is worshipping God but, actually, he is worshiping himself.
My first reaction toward this description is one of condemnation. I feel as if I have watched this person in action. He prays in a way that appears to sort of “show off” his spirituality. He uses words that sound inauthentic and just a little spiritual. It is kind of sickening to witness, isn’t it? The attention moves away from God and moves towards the person who is praying.
My second reaction is to confess that I have been this person. I have been the one trying to impress others with my prayers. I have used prayer to gain the praise of others, hoping that they would acknowledge and affirm me over worshiping God in that moment. That’s hard to admit now.
But if prayer is anything, it is worship of God. Prayer is saying, “God, you are glorious and worthy of praise. You are the one in authority. You are the one who provides my physical needs and cares for my soul.” Even when all we can do is seek out a small, “Help me, God”—even that is worship through prayer. It is the epitome of praise to ask for help from the One you depend on for everything. Jesus invites us to pray in this way:
“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” (Matthew 6:6).
Do you hope to express prayers that are focused on worshiping God, rather than yourself? I think the key is remembering how dependent we are upon God for everything. When we realize this, our prayers will become more authentic and vulnerable. We are then free to experience God in relationship as we share our lives with Him. Talking and listening to Him. Enjoying Him. This, too, is an act of worship.
Written by Matt Redmond