My entire post yesterday was the result of Max Lucado’s answer to the first question in his interview in Leadership Journal. There are other thought-provoking elements of the interview, too, though, and I want to touch here on the issue of public prayer. Lucado was asked if praying in public changes the way he prays, and he answered that it does. He elaborated on his answer though, no doubt at least in part to ensure that no one interpreted his “yes it does” as justification for the public prayers we have all heard that more closely resemble a dramatic recitation than a sincere prayer. You know what I am talking about. The voice changes to the “prayer voice” and the vocabulary changes, too, to include the “right phrases” or the Old English “thee” and “thine.” Sometimes both.
Not only is that not what Lucado had in mind, I do not think that is pleasing to the Lord. In fact, Jesus had some harsh words for the manner in which the Pharisees prayed publicly. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus said, “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” Whatever they received from others in that situation was all they were going to receive, Jesus said. Their public prayers were performances for which they expected attention and respect. God is not interested in the least in such prayers, in no small part because He is not the audience–those watching and listening are the audience.
Lucado said that praying in public is “a huge privilege.” It is a privilege to intercede on behalf of another, he said, and it is a privilege to “model sincere prayer.” Effective and appropriate public prayer is offered in a sincere manner, often focused on different praises and requests than a private prayer might be, but otherwise containing the same elements of a private prayer. Lucado cautions against the theatrical prayers I described above, saying, “May the Lord deliver us from using those [public] prayers as a time to showcase our own spirituality.” Later, he says, “It’s always a mistake to try to impress people with your knowledge or your eloquence in prayer,” calling such behavior nothing but “self promotion.”
Lucado is talking about public prayer that is offered aloud for, and within the hearing of, an assembled audience. There is another kind of public prayer that is just as important as the sincere prayers Lucado is describing, and that is the public prayer that is offered quietly or silently in a crowd, a prayer that others can see but cannot hear. This could be as simple as a bowing of the head and closing of the eyes for a few moments or it could include speaking aloud a prayer for yourself and those in your group but not for the hearing of anyone beyond. These prayers can model sincerity and devotion, as well. Since the words are not heard by the audience it is the simple act of praying in a public setting that is the testimony. It is a quiet means of declaring to those around us that prayer is important enough to us that we will do it even when it may attract looks from others or cause us to stick out.
Prayer is a tremendously private activity and the Scripture makes it clear that that is as it should be. Perhaps for that reason, perhaps for others, I actually know someone who will not pray in public. I do not mean that he does not like to do so, I mean he will not do it. Not aloud, anyway. He will attend a prayer meeting and join in a group prayer gathering, but he will not pray aloud. I am not advocating that attitude because, like Lucado, I see public prayer as a privilege and an opportunity. I would much prefer to see someone refuse to pray publicly than to pray like the Pharisees, though.
One last thought on public prayer is that we do not need to concern ourselves with how effectively we speak or how impressive our prayer sounds. Many people are uncomfortable with public prayer. Since there may be many reasons for that I am not going to judge anyone’s motives, but I will say this: if your reluctance to pray in public is because you are not sure you will “do it right,” you need to get over that. If it the prayer is sincere, that is all that matters. Maybe your prayer will not sound as authoritative or impressive as someone else’s, but God is not comparing you with anyone else and neither should you. A public prayer is just having that honest conversation with God I described yesterday…and allowing others to listen in.