Praying For the Right Reasons
Read Matthew 6:5-7 (ESV)
“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.”
Do you think this verse means that it is never ok to pray in public? Why or why not?
In Jesus’ day, it was Jewish custom to pray in public three times a day—morning, afternoon, evening. At the set prayer time, if they were out in public, going about their business, they would stop what they were doing and pray. On the Sabbath day, Saturday, Jews would also meet at the synagogue to pray and read Scripture aloud. The problem was that many people used these public prayers as opportunities to make a show of their prayer life. They wanted to look super religious so they prayed pretentious prayers for the purpose of being noticed.
In today’s verses, Jesus didn’t mince His words about people who engaged in public prayer in order to impress others. He called them hypocrites. In other words, these people are pretenders. They have a phony prayer life. The purpose of prayer is never to attract attention to ourselves. Prayer should always be about communicating with God. The purpose of public prayer is to point others to Him, not to ourselves!
Jesus then instructed His listeners to focus instead on their own private prayers. He said to go to your room, shut the door, and have secret conversations with God. We should never forget that our relationship with Jesus is meant to be a personal one. Prayer is a privilege we should never take for granted. We can have one-on-one access to the God of the universe through prayer! That’s amazing!
But, does that mean that all public prayer is off-limits? No, of course not! After all, we see Jesus Himself praying in public on several occasions. For example, when Jesus fed the multitudes in Mark 8:6 and John 6:11, He gave thanks to God publicly for the food. He even prayed, “Father, forgive them…” from the cross (Luke 23:34). But Jesus’ longest and most detailed prayer that we have a record of is often called “The High Priestly Prayer.” It is recorded in John 17 and in this prayer, He prayed for Himself, for His disciples, and for future believers. And of course, Jesus demonstrated how we should pray in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 when He gave us the Lord’s Prayer as a model.
But Scripture also records instances when Jesus prayed privately. “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed (Mark 1:35). Luke 6:12 also says, “In those days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.” After His all-night prayer session, He chose the 12 disciples.
The ESV Study Bible identifies Jesus’ prayers as a key theme of Luke’s Gospel narrative. The Gospel of Luke records that Jesus prayed, either publicly or privately, before every major event in His life. He wasn’t seeking recognition during those prayers, He was seeking guidance, fellowshipping with the Father, and interceding for others.
So what point was Jesus trying to make in today’s verses? His point was that prayer should never be a public spectacle. Our purpose in prayer, whether public or private, is to focus on God. Jesus said if your main purpose for prayer is to impress other people, you already have your reward. If you don’t already have a rich private prayer life, public prayers are simply hypocritical. They make you look like you have a habit of conversing with God but you don’t. That is why Jesus condemned them.
Friends, the bottom line is sincerity. Praying out loud or in public is not wrong as long as God is your primary audience and your purpose for praying is to converse with Him and bring Him glory. Prayer should never be a “look at me, I’m so holy” moment. Public prayer should always call others to look to Him, not at us.
God, I am so thankful that I can talk privately with You through prayer. What a gift! Draw me closer to You through my private prayers this year. Amen.