5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. 8 “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
When I first read this passage, I think to myself that I am not one to generally pray in public unless I am asked to in a group, so this isn’t an issue I struggle with. But as I begin to think about why I don’t like praying in public, I realize that this passage very much applies to me. Something I learned a while back in a class on prayer and closeness with God is that corporate prayer is not a performance, but an opportunity to help others enter into the presence of God. My timidity in praying out loud for a group is that I don’t think I do it “good enough.” I’ve never been told that my public prayers are weak or need to be “spruced up a bit,” but I always feel inadequate when it comes to praying like this. Put me in front of a crowd to teach a lesson and I’m all about it, but even in those instances, I often forget to pray out loud over the lesson and the audience as is generally expected and often very necessary. Even though I don’t like to pray in public, you can see how this point Jesus is making applies: it’s not about performance, but our relationship with God.
As humans, we tend to complicate things. The Pharisees were experts in complicating God’s Law and as we can see here, the purpose of prayer. We think that we have to use “Christian words” and speak a certain way and recite a Psalm in the middle and do it for 20 minutes or it won’t “stick.” We’ve turned prayer from what it is supposed to be, a simple conversation between you and God, into a practice of what some may recognize as spirit manipulation (which doesn’t work with the Holy Spirit, by the way). We want to please God with our lofty words and knowledge and we make back-alley deals with Him so He will give us what we want. Jesus tells us this is just silliness! God already knows what we need; He just wants you to ask Him in humility for it. Some people might argue that is silliness and is a waste of our time, but the reality is that God has opened up communication between Himself and us so that we may grow closer to Him and learn to rely on Him more. He is our Heavenly Father and just like with earthly parents, a child’s needs, their communication of those needs, and the parents’ response is what builds (or destroys) the closeness between parent and child. There are secret moments between a child and parent that always remain in the relationship. If it’s a good moment, then it will strengthen the relationship and if it is a bad one, it will continually affect it until the issue is resolved. God wants to establish a string of secret moments with us but it can only happen if we open up and communicate with Him.
All of this is said not to discourage public prayer, but to understand its place. Jesus is not saying that you shouldn’t pray in a group; He blessed the bread and fish that multiplied to feed the 5 thousand, He prayed over the sick and demoniacs and they were set free, we even know what He prayed to the Father the night of His betrayal. Our one-on-one time with the Father, however, is meant to be just that. Your relationship with God is just that: a relationship between two entities. Nor is it to say that we should only pray in short spurts or use “simple language,” but He is explaining that we don’t have to complicate our communication with God. Yes, tell Him what you need and if it takes 30 minutes to do so, so be it! But don’t think just because you use certain phrases or say the same thing over and over again that it is going to make a difference if God hears you or not. This is simply a lack of trust in God’s character.
So when we pray, we must recognize it isn’t a performance or about what we say or how we say it; it is about building our relationship with God. Any other conversation we have, whether short, long, profound, simple, important, or unimportant…they all affect our relationship with others. When we have a conversation with God, it has the same affect. The next time you talk to God, think about if you would talk to your parents, spouse, child, coworker, or best friend the same way. Then adjust how you are speaking and have a real conversation with your Father in heaven.