“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.”
Initially I planned to spend some time in prayer to experience what this passage is talking about. So I read the text, considered how it surprised me, and went on with my day. Maybe that’s why Jesus asked us to pray quietly and privately, because human days have always seemed busy and we need a reminder to set other things aside.
After trying for days to write this post I finally sat down alone at my table with supper and said, “Dear Lord, I’m moving so fast all day, so I’m praying while I eat some dinner. “ It’s a start. Thank goodness the Holy Spirit intercedes and helps us pray, so my prayers don’t have to be perfect. I’d really be lost otherwise; my words might sound like heartless gibberish to the Creator of the Universe.
Jesus said a few things about how to pray in the Sermon on the Mount.
The first section advises listeners not to pray like the “hypocrites” who pray in the street so others will notice. Instead, Jesus taught the crowds to go home and pray in secret. At first, I couldn’t remember ever seeing people pray on the street for social reward, but then I remembered that television is the new street corner. Yet modern Christians, including Adventists, do regularly pray in groups and we’re having prayer meetings in the 40 days before Easter. I don’t think Jesus was asking us not to pray together. I do, however, think this is an example of, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (6:1).
So what is Jesus’ real point? I have found it helpful to notice when a Bible writer uses hyperbole, or overstatement, to make a point, and that seems to be the case here.
“But whenever 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.”
Rather than looking at prayer like a secret, I’m interested in what it means to pray quietly and why Jesus made a point of describing the quiet—alone, with the door closed, in a quiet room. Maybe “loudly” can be viewed as a metaphor for not just publicity but for our requests, even when they are virtuous, such as asking God for care or healing for the people in our lives.
Maybe God is trying to slow me down to make it easier to talk to Him. Maybe His instruction to pray at home quietly is a way of getting me to stop running away from praying so He can refocus my attention.
Most prayers do start with the human doing the talking. But then . . . sometimes there is more, and that more requires quiet.
All this is leading me to consider that one of the purposes of prayer is spending time quietly discerning what God would like us to focus on in life. (Of course, typing is counter-productive to doing that, but I digress.) Where would God like to lead my thoughts? What unspoken prayers are in my heart? Loud prayers won’t lead me to them, but quiet prayer might bring growth—and that’s what I’m avoiding. The difficulty might not be that God is as silent as His reputation, but that I am being loud enough and busy enough to drown out a still, small voice. More importantly, by being so busy and loud I drown out reassurance that God understands my needs. And that assurance might be the most important thing Jesus says in this passage.
In verses 7-8, Jesus says not to babble because our Father in heaven already knows what we need. Yet Jesus asks us to pray anyway. It is valuable to talk with God, and it’s acceptable, even encouraged, to talk honestly with God. It gets the angst out of the way, leads to reassurance, and just might lead to refocusing my attention.
This exercise led me to the answer to my own question: Why pray quietly? Because it’s so hard to take the time and settle down to talk with God.
So, God, what would You like to talk about?