In Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus saw fit to caution the disciples about the pitfalls of public prayer and he had no problem pointing to a specific example of it in the public prayers of the Pharisees. We, on the other hand, would be hard pressed to find (or admit to), a single instance of this problem in our own Christian culture. Now why would that be?
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 (Matthew 6:5)
Now, if one of the disciples had stopped there, turned around and asked the Pharisee sitting behind him if that’s why he prayed in public the answer would have most likely been, “No”, followed by a swift back-hander for calling into question his love of God and his deep concern for his mates lost hammer.
But there you have it. No matter what the Pharisees may say about his public prayer life, Jesus, who sees the heart of man, reveals the motive and points to it’s manifestation – pray as performance. Expressions of spirituality designed to be seen and applauded by men.
Now, there is nothing wrong with public prayer, and Jesus never said there was. He is simply pointing to one of the pitfalls. Public prayer is a tempting means of satisfying our hideous desire to appear vaguely spiritual and gain the admiration of others. Desires which are often hidden from our own eyes when it comes to motives and matters of the heart (Proverbs 16:2).
Public prayers are rather rare in scripture. Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple (1Kings 8:22-23) and Elijah prayed publicly on Mt. Carmel (1Kings 17:36-37). Ezra was praying before the House of the Lord. He wasn’t really praying publicly as much as he was busted by the public who saw him doing it (Ezra 10:1).
Where it happens, public prayer seems to occur as a testimony to the faithfulness of God, in matters of corporate confession, thanksgiving and covenant renewal.
In the New Testament we see Jesus offer up a prayer in public just before He raises Lazarus from the dead. We are also told by Jesus why He did it. To encourage the faith of the disciples and as a testimony to His unique relationship to God as His heavenly Father ( John 11:42).
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and His prayers on the cross in Luke 23 could also be considered short (Matthew 6:7-8) public prayers. Prayers of cosmic significance, spoken for our edification. And that’s about it.
In contrast to the cautions about long-winded public prayer, private prayer, and a life of continual prayer, is not only encouraged, it is commanded.
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. (Matthew 6:6)
This, and Paul’s instruction to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17) are to be the norm for believers. A life of continual, private conversation, confession, thanksgiving and hands outstretched before our Heavenly Father (Psalm 123:2).
This does not exclude getting together with friends or the congregation to pray for specific needs, for the sick and for a range of other gospel and social issues. We should do these things.
What we are to avoid in public prayer is the temptation to reach for an octave never before accessed in the natural realm (Why do the voices of so many men change from a natural speaking voice to something almost Pythonesque when they pray publicly?) What we should shun is that temptation for a public prayer life that resembles a bikini model popping out of a giant birthday cake.
Why? Because, more often than not, and despite protesting our innocence, these awkward encounters (and they are awkward) are motivated by the same icky impulse: A desire for approval and applause.
Prayer that is sincere, that pleases God, is prayer that bubbles from a new heart. It’s typically private (and continual), and occasionally public (and short).
Sometimes it’s planned prayer, even carefully written prayer, like those of Jeremiah and David. But it’s honest, humble and brave prayer. And mostly hidden from view.
The kind of pray I have in mind is seen in the child who wakes from sleep and finds herself thanking God for a good night. She walks outside and sees the sunrise and her heart turns with thankfulness to God again.
God comes to mind as she sits down to eat. When she finds herself in danger, her heart naturally bubbles up with prayers to God for help. When she hears of a stranger in distress, she looks to God for answers. Through the circumstances of the day, God is brought to mind in all kinds of ways, and she prays.
And when she lies down at night, the sins of the day, her gratitude for God’s provision, her meditation on His Word, her love for a sick friend and her plans for the future, bubble to the surface without fanfare, and are all laid before her Father in Heaven. A Father who delights to hear, and delights to answer.