“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:5–8 NLT)
After the 2011 tsunami devastated the northeast coast of Japan, one man took an unusual step to help him work through his grief over his cousin’s death. He bought an old-fashioned phone booth, with a non-working phone, and put it in his backyard so he could talk to his cousin. Once word got out, thousands of people began making pilgrimages to this backyard phone booth so they too could talk to their loved ones. While seemingly a bit strange, this phone booth fits in quite well in a Buddhist culture that venerates the dead and builds shrines to loved ones who have died.
Whether we want to admit it or not, many of us treat prayer in a similar fashion. We put in a bit of ritualistic effort to hold a one-sided conversation that seems to be more about alleviating something within ourselves than it is about actually bringing about change in our world, or even change in our own hearts. This is counter to how Jesus tells us to pray.
Jesus instructs us to pray privately. This might sometimes look like praying in a specially designated prayer closet to cut out all distractions, but that too can become a place of showmanship, even if the only audience member is God. Rather, when we pray it should be secret, an act known only to us and God. Praying should be as easy and stealthy as breathing. Jesus also tells us not to be concerned with our words and whether we say the right thing or if it is said in the most beautiful way possible. Like a father watching his children struggle with a task set before them, God knows what we need before we ask and is simply wanting us to recognize that we can’t do it on our own and we need his help.
Think about how you approach prayer in your life. What are the ways in which you need to adjust how you think about or practice prayer?