The Bible repeatedly commands us to pray often. A simple survey of the New Testament finds numerous admonitions to talk to and with God (1 Thess. 5:17; Eph. 6:18; Rom. 12:12). If Paul is a model for us today, you find a man who constantly prayed to God on his own and for others he knew (Rom. 1:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:4; Eph 1:16; Col. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:13). Yet, sometimes I feel led not to pray and I think, if you’re like me, you should follow my lead on this one. Let me be specific. Many times I find myself in the presence of other believers in formal and informal prayer meetings and God specifically calls me to not pray. Why? Because my motives are wrong. I was taught very early on in my walk with the Lord that if you have a desire in your heart for self-glory in the presence of other believers, you ought to forgo prayer and let others lead. If you are using prayer as a means to make yourself appear a certain way, then you should keep silent. Your silence will protect you from sin, help you to love the Christians around you, and glorify God. I want to ground these ideas in the Word—first from the Old Testament and then from the New Testament.
The book of Habakkuk is about the problem of evil. God has used the ruthless and brutal nation of Babylon to punish his covenant people. The pagan Babylonians destroy and ransack the temple while exiling the people of God away from the Promiseland. This leads Habakkuk into a crisis of faith. How can a completely holy and pure God use such wicked men? Yes, Israel has sinned and needs to be punished, but how can God use them specifically to punish the people he loves? God responds to Habakkuk’s cries and lamentations with oracles of hope to His people and judgment to Babylon. In verses 6-20 of chapter 2, God pronounces five oracles against the evil nation of Babylon culminating with the epic declaration in verse 20—“But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Idols are nothing. Sinful men will be punished. God’s people will rise. The only reasonable response is to recognize his awesome and mighty presence with silence. We dare not enter the presence of God with anything less than reverence, awe, and wonder. This includes even during times of prayer. This idea is explicitly repeated twice within the Old Testament books of Zechariah (2:13) and Zephaniah (1:7). When God moves, acts, speaks, rules, and reigns, he does so gloriously. Self-glory has no place and will be eclipsed by a weightier reality.
One other passage is worth mentioning from the Old Testament. The preacher in Ecclesiastes surveys all of life apart from God and finds nothing but vanity. Life can only be understood and found to be fulfilling if it is understood in light of God’s presence and work. Within the book of Ecclesiastes, the preacher offers some commands that will guard our hearts and minds as we live all of life under the sun. Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” In light of God’s rule and reign within the universe, we need to be respectful, wise, and honorable in our approach to Him. The prerequisite for creaturely prayer before the Creator is humility. We are of the earth. He gloriously rules from heaven. Therefore, let your words be intentionally few. Choose true, direct, honest, and authentic words when addressing God. Self-glorifying words are rash words. They’re inauthentic words. They’re sinful words. Guard yourself from them during public prayer.
The idea of forgoing prayer in the presence of God is not only found in the Old Testament. Before Jesus ever teaches his disciples how to pray, he explicitly tells them how not to pray. There are two methods of prayer Jesus finds abhorrent, self-glorifying prayer and mindless, mechanical prayer. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus says, “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.” Jesus is not condemning any and all public prayer. How do we know that? Jesus himself prayed publicly (John 17) and the early church followed suit (Acts 1:14, 2:42, 4:24-30, 6:6, 12:5-12, 13:2-3, 14:23, 16:25, 20:36). Jesus has a problem with public prayer that is aimed at glorifying the person praying. The issue is that sneaky thing called motive. If you are praying to be seen and heard by others or to make others think you are better than them or better than you are, you are not praying correctly. You are, in fact, sinning against God as you talk to God. The only posture of prayer a human being should possess is humility, a correct understanding of who you are in relation to God and the world. Prayer isn’t a show. Prayer ought to be a showcase of our humility and God’s grace. If you’re praying to be seen and heard by your brothers and sisters, you aren’t praying in a manner that honors God.
The second type of prayer Jesus hates is found in Matthew verse 7-8. “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.” Pagans would often repeat certain phrases or titles over and over again during their prayers in hopes that the gods would listen (1 Kings 18:26; Acts 19:34). Jesus is not condemning earnest repetition that flows from a pleading soul. He is however prohibiting mindless, mechanical rambling aimed to force his hand to move. Just as prayer is not an exercise in self glory, it also is not magic. It is directed to a person who has unlimited knowledge and power. He is free to move and act based upon his wisdom. Heaping words or phrases up so others may hear does not force his hand in the slightest. It dishonors Him. Jesus goes on to teach his disciples the proper way to approach God almighty in prayer (Matt. 6:9-14). There is a honoring and dishonoring way to pray. Any prayer flowing from a place of pride glorifies the person praying and not the gracious God being prayed to. Maybe God is calling you like he does me from time to time to not pray. How will you respond?
- Do you tend to pray longer and more often in public prayer meetings than during private devotions?
- Do you look to have people verbally agree with you during prayer? If they don’t, are you discouraged?
- Are you insecure when other people have their prayers agreed with more than yours?
- Do you think, “What will sound best?” as you are praying?
- Do you seek to teach or impose your will upon other believers during prayer?
- Are you overly concerned with appearing theologically knowledgeable or more mature than others while you pray?
- Do you secretly want people to walk away from your prayers thinking you’re a mighty man or woman of prayer?
- Do you think you pray better than others?
- Do you fail to recall what you’ve prayed when you’re finished?
- Do you utter vain repetitions that have little meaning to you personally as you pray?
- Are you envious of other people’s prayers in a sinful way?
- Do you find yourself being the focus of prayer often?
- What is your attitude during times of public prayer?
- How can you better protect your heart from self-glory?