walk in the word
“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” (Matthew 6:5–6, esv).
How can you spot hypocrisy? What are hypocrites like? Jesus tells us “they love to stand and pray.” In Greek, there are two words for standing. The first word conveys an uncertain or timid stance. The second word means to take your place, mark your spot, and make your stand. Now which of those definitions do you think applies to these hypocrites who love to stand? Correct, the second. Hypocrites love to boldly take their place. They think, Only two more people till it’s my turn to pray. Only one more person, and then I’m up! Very soon I’ll take the stage, and everybody’s going to hear me talk to God. They will be so impressed with me this week at small group. I’m going to blow them away with my prayer. Revival will break out because I am so awesome at talking to God! The hypocrites get an emotional rush out of displaying their holiness.
“The furnace for an authentic prayer life is praying in secret.”
And not just “in the synagogues” (read: church settings) but also “at the street corners” (read: public settings). Today’s hypocrites think, I love to get to the office early and sit at my desk with the Bible open. I can hardly wait for people to walk by and see me. I’m so godly. Or they think, I love when my kids come downstairs in the morning and see me with my coffee and open Bible. They see how good I am at God. I’ve clearly got the God thing figured out.
Really?! Jesus says if that’s the part you like—the impression you create—then you already have your reward. Whatever that’s doing for you, those feelings are the only result, because the performance is not doing anything for God. He is not responding to you. Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? you might wonder. It could be because your true motivation is to “be seen by others.” If you love it when people see you being spiritual, if your public prayer exceeds your private prayer, and if you prefer it that way—then hear Jesus’ correction.
“But when you pray,” Jesus said, “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.” Jesus is commending prayer by yourself. It’s not wrong to pray in groups. It’s good to pray with your spouse. It’s important to pray in your small group (men with men, women with women). But public prayer should be the overflow of what’s happening in secret. If the substance of your prayer life is your public prayers, if your high watermark is people hearing you pray, then it’s time for a shift. The furnace for an authentic prayer life is praying in secret. “Go into your room and shut the door.”
Once you are alone with God, “pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The prayer closet allows no showing off. Solitary prayer is a mark of your sincerity. No one goes into a room by herself, closes the door, and gets on her knees to fake it. No one pretends in secret.
The secret to prayer is secret prayer. And the litmus test for the vitality of your spiritual life is what is happening in that private place that only you and God know about. Everything else that happens in your spiritual life, if it’s genuine, is rooted in what goes on just between you and God.
Father, please forgive me for wanting to be seen by others, for wanting to appear spiritual. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. Teach me the secret of praying in secret. I choose to spend time alone, in secret, with You—just as Jesus “went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23). In Jesus’ name, amen.
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