Matthew 6:5-8 NKJV
5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
6 “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
7 “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.
8 “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”
As Christians, we have several different levels of relationship with God. On the largest scale, we who believe are the Body of Christ–i.e. a large, corporate group, also known as the Church (with a big C) and as Children of God. As such, we are adopted into God’s family through His Son Jesus Christ. We may not personally know everyone in that larger family, but we know their character as fellow believers, and we know our common Father.
Our next level of relationship is through our local church. This is the place and group where we participate in the Lord’s supper, are baptized into Christ, and where we perform ministry for the glory of God. We ought to know pretty much everyone in our local church–or at least know someone who knows them. This is our network of support and praise, our friends, acquaintances, and perhaps relatives. This group may change if we relocate, but because all local churches are part of the larger Body of Christ, we know we are among family no matter what church we go to.
But our most intimate relationship with God is one-on-one. That is the relationship that really matters, because it is the root for all the other relationships.
Matthew 22:36-40 NKJV
36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
38 “This is the first and great commandment.
39 “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
The “You” which Jesus uses in both of these commandments is the singular “you”–i.e. not “you” as in “all of you people,” but “you” as in “you yourself.” This love I am to have for the Father–this agapé love–is personal, one-on-one, between me as an individual and God Himself. That is my most intimate relationship with God, that I should love Him with all my own heart, with all my own soul, and with all my own mind. After all, who else can promise to God those parts of me that are so intrinsically mine? Only I can give to God all that I have from within me.
And it is in prayer that we speak most personally with God. Yes, there are corporate prayers where we may join together to make our communal needs known to God. We may join with others to glorify God in our prayers, and we may raise our voices with others to pray in agreement for someone else’s needs.
James 5:13-16 NKJV
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.
14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
Is James contradicting our Lord here, when he says we ought to pray together rather than in private? Not at all! James is addressing corporate prayer, and that sort of group prayer is something necessary and expected in the Body of Christ as a whole, as well as in the local church. Corporate prayer is not only glorifying to God, but it acts to release God’s power on the world. What Jesus is addressing in today’s verses is private prayer, that intimate conversation between Father and child.
In his book Whole Prayer, Pastor Walter Wangerin Jr. tells us that prayer is a four-step process that is not unlike most other conversations we might have:
1) I speak.
2) God listens.
3) God speaks.
4) I listen.
It is a very personal process, and it is meditative and requires time for reflection. It is tempting to just toss off a quick prayer–“Lord, watch over this day. Amen.”–and then just leave it at that. But who can have a real conversation with something like that? How is God supposed to respond to us, and how are we to listen to Him, if our prayers are so hurried?
In today’s passage, Jesus tells me to leave behind the trappings of “religion”–vain public prayers and repetitive phrases–and focus on that relationship and conversation that is just between me and God. Think about it for a moment: is every conversation you have with your spouse or your parents the same? And how about the conversations they have with other people, other family members? Every conversation is different, and the level of communication between us and our families is directly related to how much listening we do, not just how much talking.
How can we listen if we are focused on making a spectacle of our prayer in public? How real is a conversation that is based solely on rote phrases and meaningless “Christian jargon”? And most importantly, how can we focus on God if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the world?
So Jesus doesn’t just tell us to avoid the prayer habits of the hypocrites and the heathens, nor does He stop at telling us to say our prayers in private. Jesus tells us to shut ourselves in the closet! In other words, He is telling us to get away from everyone–away from fellow church members, away from family, away from anyone or anything that might distract us from God–and then pray.
Jesus quite literally says “Shut your door”!
Once we shut the door and are in that private space, our attention can focus solely on God. We can not only take the time to Adore Him, to Confess to Him, to Thank Him, and to bring our Supplications before Him, but then we can also take the time to listen to that still, small voice that is surely His. Go ahead, shut your door and pray, and take the time to listen to God.
Heavenly Father, Your Son Jesus reminds me that You already know my needs before I speak them. Therefore, may my time with You be spent more in listening for Your voice than in talking with my own. May my focus be upon Your glory and Your will rather than my own selfish desires. Dear Lord, may Your kingdom be the focus of all my hopes and needs and prayers. Amen.