“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8 NIV)
It is a sad commentary on our current environment that praying on a street corner to receive a recognition is no temptation. We just don’t think of doing that. We do pray within our church community and the temptation to pray in a way that impresses the people listening is a real temptation. Bonhoeffer had much to say on this topic, and this is the quote that really caught my attention.
But it is no better; indeed, it is even more harmful when I make myself the observer of my own prayer, when I pray before myself. – The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I often have the opportunity to pray in public. This temptation to become an observer is very real and when we give into it Jesus tells us that the only ones who hear our prayer are here on earth. We had a practice within our small group that I think was good, but was very open to this temptation. We collected prayer requests and then one person prayed aloud presenting those requests to God. The temptation is to pray more attention to getting the request phrased right than is being paid to the God who can answer the request. We changed this practice and I think the change is for the better. Now we all pray our individual requests.
What about those times when I’m praying on my own? When I’m kneeling in prayer in a room with the door shut my wife may know what I’m doing, but my posture and words are hidden. At least they are hidden from everyone but me. I know where my focus should be. I should be seeking God’s presence and listening for His voice. There is no possibility of impressing Him. He is already delighted that I’ve chosen to come into His presence. What could I possibly do to increase His delight? Nothing.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26 ESV)
Jesus is going to provide us with words we can say, but I think the prayer that Paul describes in Romans is what Jesus is encouraging us toward. It is the prayer that is made in confidence that God is listening and certainty that His desire is for our good, especially when we don’t know what that is. It is prayer that is so caught up in God’s presence that there is no thought of becoming the audience for my own prayer.
We should take a clue from human conversation. I can only do one thing at a time. When I’m really focused on listening to my wife then my response will be natural and the conversation moves forward. When my focus is on myself, then it is really hard to hear her and maybe even harder for her to hear me. Returning to a previous topic, maybe this is why silence is so important to effective prayer. If you catch yourself thinking about how you’re going to say what you want to say to God, maybe it is time to pause, listen, and then just let the words come. God created language. He can sort it out.