In my hearing, someone told another person, “If you don’t want your life changed, try to stay off Elsie’s hit list.” He was talking about prayer and that was not the first time I’d heard him say it.
This was not a good thing to hear. In no time, my prayer focus shifted off talking with God. I started to think more about what I was saying and how I was praying and prayer became a performance. This is why Jesus warned His followers about their motives for praying . . .
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. (Matthew 6:5–6)
Jesus isn’t suggesting that we never pray publicly, but to be careful that prayers are for the ears of God and not the ears of man.
Occasionally I’ve heard people pray with big long explanations of the situation, obviously not for God who knows more than we do, but for the others in the group. I’ve done that myself. I’ve also heard wordy prayers spoken in flowery language, quite unlike the normal conversation of the person praying. Even more subtle is praying with the idea that if we can “get the words right” then God will be more apt to hear and answer.
Besides being so silly in the way of prayer, the attitude of the heart can become even sillier. I can come to God with a to-do list that tells Him how to run things, as if I know! I can also come to God with all sorts of excuses for my bad behavior, or the opposite with all sorts of reasons why I’m good enough that He should hear me. Jesus also covered this in another parable . . .
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
Prayer is a conversation between myself and God whom I have trusted with my life and eternal destiny. It is supposed to be an expression of my heart just as He expresses His heart to me. However, if I put my praying on a pedestal as if the words I say are special or the way that I say them is surely going to move Almighty God, then I am not praying at all.
Besides that error, if I pray on the outside and think about something else on the inside, just mouthing the words, then I am a hypocrite too . . .
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” (Isaiah 29:13–14)
Here, when God says He will do wonders, He is not talking about things that delight us and that we usually associate with this word. It is more like an unexpected marvel that will reduce this so-called wisdom of mine and put it where it belongs. It is a wonder that I don’t want to ever see.
God wants integrity, honesty, and from-the-heart prayers. When I talk to Him, He already knows what I am thinking. If others are within earshot, I’m not to worry about what they think. In fact, if the sound of my public prayers do not match the sound of my closet prayers, this is my first clue that I’ve made an idol out of my praying and have lost that privileged connection with God.