Hypocrisy In Prayer
Scripture: Matthew 6:5-8
Prayer is fundamental to the Christian life. At its core, it is a means of communication with God and a means of developing our relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit. If you are a Christian, you should be praying. However, did you know that it is possible for us to pray in the wrong way? Jesus addressed this issue in the passage that is in front of us today. Proper prayer is part of orthopraxy (right living), and as Christians, we cannot afford to get prayer wrong. Let's take a look at what Jesus had to say about how we should pray.
Jesus begins this passage by reminding the disciples that they are to be people of prayer. Notice that Jesus did not say "If you pray........pray like this." Rather, Jesus said "When you pray, you must not be like......." For the Christian, a healthy prayer life is not optional. Jesus commanded his disciples to be people of prayer, and he appears to assume that they would be so. Indeed, we see prayer occupy an important place in the early church (Acts 1:14, 2:42, 3:1, 12:5, et. al.). Even though prayer occupies such an important space in the life of the Church, it is important to keep the nature and purpose of prayer in proper perspective. Prayer is not a means of showing others how holy and righteous you are. Rather, it is a means of communicating with God and adoring him. It is never to be self-centered, but God-centered. This is the purpose of praying in Jesus' Name, which in modern terms likely means something like "In accordance with the will of Jesus." We must always be conscious of God's will when we pray, seeking his will and his guidance for whatever situation we find ourselves facing.
Douglas Hare correctly notes that even though the synagogue is mentioned, private prayer is what is in view here. Notice that Jesus does not prohibit public prayer, but hypocritical prayer. Jesus warns against being like those who make prayer all about themselves by seeking public praise for engaging in prayer in the first place. Those who pray seeking a reward of praise from others will receive that reward, but should never expect for God to bless such a hypocritical stance on prayer. Prayer is about God, not about us. As with those who give with the hopes of being praised by others, those who pray in a hypocritical manner have been given the very reward that their hearts truly want. As Craig Keener insightfully notes, "True religion demands sufficient faith to settle for God’s approval, to do what pleases him no matter what others may think."
Jesus not only informs his disciples not to be hypocritical in prayer, but offers a solution to counteract the desire to pray for public accolades. When we pray as individuals (as opposed to as a time of corporate prayer), we are to go into a private place and pray. Bruce Barton and Craig Keener both note that this would have been an inner room without windows, perhaps a storehouse. The point is that it was secluded. In doing this, we model the prayer life of Jesus, who often sought secluded places at various times of the day in order to pray (Mark 1:35; compare Matthew 14:23-24). Jesus not only demanded that we pray in secret, he also modeled it for his disciples. Thus, we are to look to Christ as the model for our prayer life.
Jesus also warns his disciples about the way in which they pray. It was common for pagans at this time to repeat their prayers over and over, sometimes using variations of their so-called deities' names. Disciples of Jesus are not to imitate this kind of prayer. We cannot manipulate God based on what we say or how many times we say it. Ultimately, our prayer is to be that God's will be done, not our own (Matthew 6:10). God cannot be manipulated, and if we believe that God is good, then we should be incredibly grateful for this fact.
Finally, Jesus reminds us not to be like the hypocrites he just discussed. We are not to babble on in prayer, think that repetition will gain us anything, or try to manipulate God in any way, since God already knows what we need and what we are asking for. In fact, God knows these things before we ever pray. Doesn't it bring you great joy knowing that our hope in prayer is grounded in God's goodness? Doesn't it bring us relief to know that God knows what we need before we even speak a word? Hallelujah!