We often hear people say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” as if “thoughts” and “prayers” are the same thing. 😕 So, when I hear this popular phrase, I seriously doubt much prayer is going to happen at all because for many people this is just a thing to say. And sadly, when people tell me they will pray for me, I seriously doubt they will because generally it is simply a social cue that our conversation is over. It’s the end of the discussion of why I need prayer and time to move on to the next thing. 🙁 Public announcements of intentions to pray are rarely genuine. And before you conclude that I am being too harsh or even cynical, take a look at what Jesus had to say about it.
“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.”1 I think our public announcements about promising to pray are nothing more than this; that is, that we would “be seen by others” as people of prayer. And take note, Jesus called those people “hypocrites.” So, unless we really are going to pray for someone, it is best not to announce that we will! 😧 Jesus also commented on those who “for a show make lengthy prayers.”2 And then added, “These men will be punished most severely.”2 It sounds like God is not impressed with long prayers and some pray-ers—preachers in particular, I’m afraid—really need to hear this! And since we have opened up this diatribe, Jesus also said this about prayer: “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.”3 “Empty phrases” would include the popular religious terms of the day. Some people’s prayers sound like an anthology of favorite spiritual words. 😒
In conclusion, according to Jesus, making public promises to pray and publicly praying long prayers in order to impress others while using lots of vain repetitious meaningless words is . . . well, it’s wrong.
Of course, it is wrong! 🙄 That’s not hard to see. But what is hard to see is when we are the ones guilty of doing this! 😦 The common thread in these accounts is the idea of impressing others with our great prayers. When we pray to “be seen by others,” or “for a show,” or are concentrating on our “many words,” then we are praying hypocritically. Even so, it’s hard to acknowledge our hypocrisy because we certainly mean to mean what we say, whether we mean it or not! 🤪
It’s complicated. The intention of our hearts is difficult to master. Most of us would love to be good pray-ers. But praying publicly brings with it the temptation to impress others with our thoughts and prayers; it just does. Although it certainly is not wrong to pray in public, Jesus advocated the opposite. He said, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”4 Why pray like this? Because there is no one there to impress! Praying to God privately is the one place where we can say exactly what we think and feel, not holding back, not worried about how we sound or which words to use or how long or short our prayer is. 🙂
Jesus also added, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”4 I personally love the word “secret” here. A secret is something we share with someone we trust. Prayer is that personal, and mostly, it is a private time alone with God who loves us with an everlasting love. The challenge for many of us then is to find a private room where we can “shut the door” and be truly alone. And say what we desperately need to say. When we do this, Jesus promises a reward! What is the reward? He doesn’t say, but there are at least two rewards that I receive on a regular basis: 1) peace of mind from casting my burdens on God, and 2) feeling loved from having a personal conversation with God.
I think the more we pray privately, the better we are at praying publicly because we become attuned to the fact that no matter how many people are in the room, our only audience is God. It could be that those people who announce that their thoughts and prayers are with us only pray when someone else is actually voicing the prayer. They pray vicariously and virtually but rarely personally. Therefore, those of us who do make a practice of prayer and know that “thoughts” are totally different than “prayers” need to become better at praying in public. Which might mean we should pray short meaningful humble prayers! 😉
1Matthew 6:5 2Mark 12:40 3Matthew 6:8 4Matthew 6:6