Keep (most of) your prayers private.

Too often public prayers lead to showing off.

Matthew 6.5-6

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught this.

Matthew 6.5-6 KWL
5 “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites who enjoy standing in synagogues and major intersections,
praying so they might be seen by the people. Amen! I promise you all, they got their satisfaction.
6 When you pray, go into your most private room with the door closed.
Pray to your Father in private. Your Father, who sees what’s private, will satisfy you.”

Thanks to these directions, we don’t see a lot of Christians praying publicly in the visible parts of our churches—or on the streets, in the middle of shopping centers, in front of public buildings…

Okay, we see some Christians praying in front of public buildings.

And there’s the occasional football player who takes a knee every time he scores a goal. And the people who gather round flagpoles and businesses and walk the streets and pray over them. And there’s the folks who pitch a fit because the schoolteachers in public schools can’t do that. (Although I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, where if school prayer were legal, I’d have had all sorts of weird pagan prayers inflicted upon me. It sure ain’t Texas, where the pagans are way better at pretending to be Christian.)

See, some people believe public prayer is important and necessary: People need to see Christians pray. They’re doing cultural spiritual warfare, y’all. Their public example inspires others to be more Christian—and gets pagans to recognize there are God-fearing people in our nation.

I give them the benefit of the doubt. I know plenty of them. Their motives are good: They wanna redirect Christians to their God, refocus the public on God, and get more people to pray. Thing is, in my experience, they get only two real results, neither of which they intended:

  • Us fellow Christians respond, “Oh, good for them!”—yet we don’t pray any more than we usually do. ’Cause their message is for pagans, not us. And we’re good.
  • Meanwhile, the pagans? They mock.

And admittedly, some of us fellow Christians mock. Back in 2008 I read a news report about a Christian prayer team, led by Texas prophet Cindy Jacobs, which went to Wall Street in New York City to lead a Day of Prayer for the World’s Economies. They were gonna pray for various American and international financial institutions who’d caused suffered from the recent economic recession, and pray for God to take ’em over. Which is fine, but here’s what happened.

I recall the Hebrews got in big trouble for doing something like this. Wonkette

On Wall Street there’s a statue of a bull, meant to represent a bullish, or active, economy. The prayer team decided to lay their hands upon it while they prayed. Looked like so. My very first thought upon seeing this photo: “Good Lord, they’re praying over a golden calf. Um… didn’t the LORD smite the Hebrews for that?” Ex 32.35

Again, benefit of the doubt: They meant well. But somebody on that team either didn’t bother to think of how their actions looked—or didn’t care, figuring their good intentions outweighed how foolish they looked. ’Cause once pagans found out what biblically literate Christians know about the gold calf story, they sure had a lot of fun with it.

Way too easy to misinterpret.

This is why Jesus instructed his followers to not pray in public. When it comes to prayer, he doesn’t want our behavior and actions to instruct people. He wants our instructions to instruct them. Our actions are way too easy to misinterpret.

When we pray in public, we’re putting on a show. This is why Jesus calls such people hypocrites. Not because they’re faking their prayers, but because ypókrisis is the ancient Greek word for “actor”: Such people are overdramatizing. They’re praying for show. Part of any show is exaggeration, is fakery. Maybe with the best of intentions… and sometimes not, ’cause they’re not all that pious and religious, but they’re sure making it look like they are. Either way, it’s a show.

And prayer leaders often tell us to make a show of it. There’s a yearly function in the United States called “See You at the Pole”: Christians gather round a flagpole for public prayer for our nation. Nearly always, the flagpole is at public or government buildings. Organizers actually instruct us Christians, “Tell all your friends to come! We want a really big crowd, a big show of force.” Force? Yes indeedy. Though we can pray for our nation anytime (and should be doing it already), “See You at the Pole” is a political statement. In part it’s to remind all the pagans in our country just how many Christians are among them. ’Cause our good deeds suck at doing that job. So we put on a show.

And one pagans recognize is a show. Christians too—unless we’ve got our political blinders up.

Public prayer doesn’t impress pagans. For those who aren’t sure about God anyway, they figure we’re having a conversation with an imaginary friend, or a disinterested deity. They’re only impressed when God legitimately answers a prayer—either directly, or through his obedient followers. Too many of us Christians follow up our prayers with no action, no miracles, no good deeds, nothing. So pagans assume our prayers are nothing:

  • “Praying after a field goal? Big deal. Pray before the field goal, and I might be impressed.”
  • “Oh, your thoughts and prayers are with the victims? Big deal. How about your actions do something for the victims?… assuming you do anything.”

Don’t look at me. I’m with the skeptics. Just as faith without works is dead, prayer without works looks just as dead.

Even though prayer is a totally valid thing, and petitioners might be totally valid followers of God, there’s so much show involved, it blunts the prayer. Publicly, we say more than we honestly should. Publicly, we claim more than we honestly believe. Publicly, we exaggerate. Or overdo it on the fake-sounding prayer language. There’s just enough falseness in our prayer to make it not worth God’s time. And it proves nothing to the pagans, ’cause we seldom follow it up with action.

So if the goal was to be seen, like Jesus said, “they got their credit.” But if their goals were to call down God, and inspire others to pray… well, they didn’t achieve either of ’em.

Sometimes we gotta pray in public.

The reason I titled this article “Keep (most of) your prayers private,” is because sometimes we gotta pray in public. Sometimes we lead a prayer group in church, or say grace before a meal, or even ask God for a miracle at a tense but public moment. Sometimes we gotta pray, aloud, for someone who’s hurting. Sometimes it’s unavoidable.

Jesus’s teaching was not meant to ban all public prayer entirely. After all, he prayed publicly sometimes. But he acknowledged there was something sorta artificial going on. Like so, when he prayed for his dead friend Lazarus.

John 11.41-42 KWL
41 So they lifted up the stone, and Jesus lifted up his eyes.
He said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know; you always hear me.
But I say this because of the crowd around, so they’d believe you sent me.”

And he’s precisely the example we ought to follow. In order to avoid any fakery, Jesus admitted his purpose for speaking aloud. It was to inform those who were listening that the Father did listen to him, and sent him. As he proved a moment later by raising the dead.

But other than these few instances where we gotta lead a group prayer, Jesus’s instruction is to treat prayer like we oughta treat a phone call: Step outside and do it in private. Unlike those fools who answer their phones, loudly, in the middle of the restaurant or library or church service, we need to step away and speak in private. It’s nobody’s business what we tell God. (And not always their business what he tells us.)

Keep it in the closet.

Remember when I wrote on prayer closets? (No? Read it again.) Go find a private place to speak to God. Prayers are not for others to watch. They’re not performance. We’re speaking with the Almighty, and we need the privacy so we can open up with him and be authentic.

Other people hinder us from honest conversation. Much as we might try to be transparent—to be completely, utterly, embarrassingly honest in front of others—there are always gonna be hangups which prod us to do a little playacting in our public prayers. Get away from that, by getting away from them.

And when our Father sees us practice this behavior regularly, he rewards it. He gives us more fruit, stronger faith, more obvious answers (whether yes or no), more revelation… He just plain gives us more. All that stuff which Christians hope to acquire by gathering in public places and calling upon the Lord’s name? If you really want it, pray for it in private. Watch what God does.