“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 6:6, esv).
The secret to prayer is prayer in secret.
Jewish tradition in Jesus’ day had reduced prayer down to a shadow of its intended purpose. Instead of being an avenue for meaningful, spontaneous, sincere communication with God, prayer had largely become a religious form without a function. Repetitive and ritualistic. A means of impressing others with public demonstrations of fervor and superiority.
And to hear Jesus tell it, they loved it. “They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5).
Notice the phrase “they love to stand.” The original language of the New Testament contained two different verbs that could be interpreted to stand, and the word Jesus used in this verse is the kind of standing that is tall, firm, bold, and confident. These people loved standing there, knowing that others were watching and listening and being blown away by how well they prayed. Loved it.
Now if that’s what we want, if that’s what we love, we can still do it that way. As it’s coming around our turn to pray, we can plan ahead how to impress people with our spiritual artistry and turns of phrase. When we’re praying at home, we can feed off the self-righteous piety of knowing someone may spot us in the den or kitchen, sitting there with our Bible open, obviously with superior commitment to our devotional time. We can love being known for how impressive we are at prayer, even if it indicates a level of prayer life we don’t actually have.
However, we cannot pray this way and expect God to listen to it or answer. As Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5b). If it’s all for show, it’s all for nothing. Nothing more. Nothing else.
The secret to prayer is prayer in secret—where you “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pray in groups, pray with your spouse, or ever do any kind of praying with others in public. It just means that if your public prayer exceeds your private prayer, you’re missing the point of what prayer is all about. You’re abusing its privileges and forsaking its possibilities. Praying with others is of little real value unless it’s overflowing from the praying you do in secret; unless it’s coming from what happens in private places that only you and God know about.
The prayer closet allows no showing off. The prayer closet is proof of your sincerity. No one who’s trying to draw attention to themselves goes into their room, closes the door, and gets down on their knees in prayer. No one fakes it in secret.
That’s why praying by yourself is the foundation of all prayer. The litmus test for the validity of your spiritual life is what takes place where no other human sees. The genuineness and effectiveness of what you do in public will never rise any higher than the genuineness and effectiveness of what you do when no one’s watching.
Think of prayer as a solo sport—and today as game day.
Father God, I come to You today in this private place, wanting nothing other than just to be with You, humbled that You would want to be with me. You are enough, Lord. Bowing here in Your presence is greater by far than standing and being seen in the presence of others. Forgive me for the pride and pretense that too often takes hold within me, disguising this truth from my mind and heart. Draw me back here again and again, where I can love You and learn from You in secret. In Jesus’ name, amen.