When teaching his disciples about prayer, our Lord said:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt 6:5–6; ESV).
This comes immediately after his instruction that we ought not to practice our righteousness in order to be seen by others (Matt 6:1). Those who do this have their reward from those who see them, not from their heavenly Father. Likewise, when we give alms (e.g., the diaconal offering) we ought not to make a show of it in public, as the hypocrites do (Matt 6:2). Rather, we are to do it secretly, so that, as it were, our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing (Matt 6:3). There is a theme building here.
Thus, he turns to prayer. The conjunction “and” signals that he is continuing the same theme but applying it to prayer. Again he criticizes “the hypocrites.” They are those whose righteousness is entirely for public consumption. They are not what they seem—some of those who made great show of their public piety plotted in secret to murder Jesus. Yet, for many true piety is public piety. To be real it must be seen. This is the definition of ostentatious. In some traditions, unless one can demonstrate one’s piety through the public exercise of an alleged “spiritual gift,” “second blessing,” or some other act of piety, then one’s commitment to Christ and to godliness is to be questioned. In some cases, it is hard to see how they have not ignored our Lord’s injunction against “heap[ing] up empty phrases” in prayer (Matt 6:7). Our Lord calls such prayer a pagan practice.
Where such attitudes prevail it is almost certain that Jesus’ teaching about prayer, privacy, and piety have not been sufficiently influential. When we prioritize public displays of piety before private prayer we are certainly looking toward the approval of men rather than seeking to commune with God and yet prayer is nothing it is not communing with God, a heartfelt calling on his name in the way he has commanded us.
Public displays of piety turn a quintessential element of the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. When ostentatious piety and the approval of men is our goal, that is a works relationship. We are doing in order to earn praise and favor with others. True prayer is the grateful response of the believer to his heavenly Father adoring his name, nature, and attributes. It confesses sin openly, honestly, and without reservation. It thanks our Father for his free favor toward us in Christ, for the forgiveness of sins, for the many benefits and blessings he has poured out on us. It cries out before him as a child to a parent for all the needs and burdens we all carry. Contrast the ostentatious, blustery, self-glorifying prayers we have probably all heard with the utter simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer in verses 9–13.
Jesus contrasts where the hypocrites pray as distinct from where believers pray. The hypocrites make a great show of their piety in public but believers know that, by definition, the focus of piety is not other men but God our Father, in Christ, the Spirit helping us. Such private piety seeks a refuge. God is that refuge but Jesus mentions the inner room of the house, sometimes a literal safe space or place where valuables are kept. “Closet” may not be the very best way to translate the word. Perhaps “safe room” captures it more accurately. I grew up in American Great Plains. May and June on the plains constitute tornado season. Everyone in tornado country knows the warning signs and where to go in the event of a tornado warning. The best place to go is underground, in a locked cellar but an interior room is certainly better than a front room or the roof (as some have been known to do). These places get one away from flying debris. They tend to be structurally more solid.
When it comes to prayer they are the places one is least likely to be found praying. That is as it should be. Prayer, of the sort our Lord had in mind, is meant to be prayed privately or at least not for public consumption. It is unconcerned about what others think. It is only concerned about what our heavenly Father thinks.
Of course there is a time and place for public prayer: chiefly in public worship services. In those services the minister prays for us. We might respond to his call to prayer with the Lord’s Prayer, which is perfectly appropriate. Even then, however, our prayers are not for others but directed to our Father. We are, after all, in worship. We are hearing God’s Word and praising him with his own Word. It is truly not about us. It is about our Creator and Redeemer. We might even say that, in an important sense, our public worship and prayers are the source of our private piety. We need not set them against one another, however. Both are essential to the well being and spiritual growth of believers.
Displays of piety for public consumption is a temptation we all face. We are often tempted to turn grace into works, to turn the most basic and appropriate response to God’s grace into an opportunity to glorify ourselves. When we find ourselves doing so, we ought to confess our sins and call out to our Father for his grace and mercy that we might more and more see prayer for what it is and that we might pursue it where and how our Lord taught.
R. Scott Clark (Escondido) for AGR Live.