“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. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5–8)
Hypocrites are those who “pretend to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that they do not actually possess.” They are people whose actions do not match their stated beliefs. Hypocrisy is being different on the inside or in private than on the outside so as to impress people who are watching.
The hypocrites Jesus described were religious leaders of the day who feigned a pious attitude and demeanor that they did not actually have. Their prayers were public so people would see them and be impressed. They were rewarded, not by God but by the ‘respect’ given them by their audience.
I’ve been reading a book by Dallas Willard called “Hearing God” and thinking about prayer in terms of listening and of being in conversation. It is easy to recite a prayer list without much thought that I am talking to Almighty God. It is also easy to give what Rosalyn Rinker once called a “prayer speech” and forget that this is supposed to be a conversation.
At our church’s Wednesday morning Bible study, the women were given a journal-prayer exercise. We were to ask God a question and write that question in our journal. Next we began writing whatever came to mind. It might be our own ideas, but I noticed right away that they did not seem like my thoughts. God had something to say to me concerning my questions.
This conversational prayer is controversial because of the extremes taken. For example, Christian writers have told editors that their manuscript was given to them from God and could not be edited, even though their precious document was full of grammar and spelling errors. Others claim messages from God that are plainly against His Word, the Bible.
I have a vivid imagination and have learned to examine my thoughts before assuming they are divinely sourced. Even what seems like a brilliant plan can come out of my desire to impress others (like those praying hypocrites). In fact, that is the first thing I look for: what is my motive? Can I do this without getting any credit for it? Can I talk to God about it and then do it even if no one ever knows that it was done?
Along the same line is praying itself. Chambers points to Jesus’ words about secret prayer. Can I ask without telling others? Can I boast of God who hears and answers, or is my focus on ‘look what I did’ as if my praying was the more important thing.
Chambers also points to Jesus words about “heaping up empty phrases” or as the KJV calls it, “vain repetitions” as if much praying with pious words will impress God. What usually happens when some people pray this way in a group is that the others stay silent for fear their prayers will not sound as good.
Both are in error. When I pray with others, I am supposed to be listening to God, not to how other people sound, or be concerned how I sound to them. It is about connecting with God to praise Him, to ask for His help, and to say thanks for all He has done.