08 September 2021

Keep (most of) your prayers private.

Matthew 6.5-6.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught,

Matthew 6.5-6 KJV
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Which is why we don’t see the streets of our nation lined with Christians, their arms raised and heads to the sky, praying as loud as possible so as to let everyone know we’re devout, and that we’re praying for our land.

Well… we don’t usually see this. Although I remember this one trip I made to Washington D.C. where we saw it all the time. I was chaperoning some kids on a civics tour, where we went to the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian, and all sorts of public buildings. And wouldn’t you know it: In every last one of these places, there were Christian groups, praying good ’n loud for the United States. If you didn’t know they were Christian by their behavior, you’d definitely know it by their very public prayers.

Various Christian organizations also put together days of prayer, or prayer breakfasts, or get high schoolers to gather at the flagpole to pray, or get concerned citizens to show up at all the city halls to pray. Sometimes they’re protesting something; sometimes they’re in favor of something; either way they pray. Publicly. Loudly. For all to see and hear.

There’s the occasional athlete who takes a knee every time he scores a goal. And there are the folks who pitch a fit because public schoolteachers can’t lead the kids in prayer. As someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, I should point out this is more of a blessing than you realize: I’d’ve been exposed to all sorts of weird pagan prayers had my teachers been required to lead prayer time. It’s not at all like the Bible Belt, where the pagans have way more practice at pretending to be Christian.

Back in 2008, during a major economic recession, Texas prophet Cindy Jacobs led a prayer team to New York City to lead a Day of Prayer for the World’s Economies. They were gonna pray for the financial institutions who caused suffered from the 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 an active, “bullish” economy. The prayer team chose to lay their hands upon it and pray. 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

Okay, they meant well. But the prayer team didn’t bother to think about how their actions looked—or didn’t care, figuring their good intentions outweighed how foolish they looked. ’Cause pagans have seen The Ten Commandments, and know that golden calf story. And sure had a lot of fun with it.

How we justify public prayer.

Many a Christian believes public prayer is important and necessary. People need to see us pray: They need to see our good examples. “Let your light shine before others” and all that.

Often it’s cultural spiritual warfare. They want everybody to know Christians are praying for our nation; that the United States is a Christian nation, founded by Christians under biblical principles, and that the Father expects us to abide by these principles… or he’s gonna smite us like he did ancient Israel. So we pray in public to remind them we regularly tap our heavenly Father’s power so our nation can be strong and great. He’s where our real might comes from—and if they get any other ideas, this’ll slap the truth back into ’em.

There’s a whole spectrum between “let your light shine” and Christian supremacy, and most of the folks who pray in public are somewhere on there. And unless they’re bedecked in political clothing and signs, I give ’em the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re earnestly trying to be good Christians.

Thing is, are they good Christians when they utterly violate the Sermon on the Mount?

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are

I mean, they know this verse. Some of them have it word-for-word memorized. Quote it at them and they’ll quickly say, “Well yes, but I’m no hypocrite; I’m doing this for good reasons.” And usually they do have good reasons. They’re leading prayer. Prayer’s important. Calling out to God, as a group, is important. Praying over places and buildings and civic bodies and individuals is important. Ancient Israel’s kings led public civic prayers; why not they? And people should know they oughta call upon God for leadership and peace.

But Jesus doesn’t say, “But I make exceptions for people who stand on the streetcorners and town squares and outside our churches, and pray for their nation to return to how things were in the 1950s.” He straight-up calls them hypocrites. The word literally means “over the face,” like one of the masks used in ancient Greek dramas. False-faces. Playactors. Fakes. Frauds. Liars.

Jesus bluntly instructs us 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. We’re talking to God for others to see. And part of any such show is exaggeration: We don’t normally talk to God like this, but for their sake we are. We might be totally earnest in what we say to God, but we are overacting just a little. Even Jesus did it.

John 11.41-42 KJV
41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. 42 And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.

Jesus deliberately said “Thank you for hearing me” so others could hear him say it. No I’m not accusing Christ Jesus of hypocrisy; I’m saying there’s a certain level of exaggeration we commit when we pray for others to hear, and even Jesus had to do it. But whereas Jesus can do it correctly, and exaggerate without being false… the rest of us really suck at this.

Prayer leaders will even tell us to make a show of these public prayers. There’s a yearly function in the United States called “See You at the Pole.” It’s mostly for high schoolers, but pretty much anywhere there’s a flagpole, Christians are encouraged to gather round the pole for public prayer for our nation. Organizers actually instruct us, “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 let’s show ’em how many we are!

Pagans are fully aware it’s all for show. As do many Christians—unless our political blinders are on.

It doesn’t do what we claim it does.

In my experience, people who pray in public like this always get two unintended results:

  • People look upon them and approve… but don’t reform. Don’t repent. Don’t pray any more than usual.
  • People mock them, and figure they’re hypocrites.

And no, it’s not just the pagans and antichrists who mock ’em as hypocrites. It’s us Christians too. ’Cause remember today’s bible passage?

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are

We claim it’s public piety. That’s false. It’s really meant to be intimidation. It’s not humility, compassion, true concern for the lost and needy of our country; it’s about making things “right” as we define rightness, and making the nation “great” as we define greatness. And if rightness and greatness don’t look like God’s kingdom, it’s just an exercise in civic idolatry. “God, endorse us!” instead of “Christ have mercy.”

Public prayer doesn’t impress pagans. They know our numbers are simply a show of political force—and they presume they have greater numbers. (And they might!) They don’t worry about us calling upon God and his power; they either correctly recognize God doesn’t endorse the prayers of hypocrites, or they’re not so sure God is real anyway, and figure we’re calling upon an imaginary friend.

You wanna impress a pagan? You gotta show them a case of God legitimately answering a prayer. Either directly, or through his obedient followers. ’Cause way 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 even care.”

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. We exaggerate, and say more than we should, and claim more than we honestly believe. We overdo it on the fake-sounding prayer language. There’s so much falseness in these prayers, God doesn’t care to answer it; it’s not worth his time. And it proves nothing to the pagans, ’cause we have no followup.

The goal was only to be seen, like Jesus said. “They have their reward.”

When we do have to pray publicly.

The reason I titled this article “Keep (most of) your prayers private,” is because sometimes we need to pray for others, and it’s gonna wind up being in public. Same as when Jesus prayed at Lazarus’s tomb, which is the context of that John 11 passage I quoted above. Sometimes we lead a prayer group, or say grace before a meal, or ask God for help 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 artificiality going on. And he’s precisely the example we oughta follow: In order to avoid any fakery, Jesus admitted his purposes for speaking aloud. It was to inform those who were listening that the Father did listen to him, and sent him. Jn 11.42 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 theater 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.)

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.