“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites.” Matthew 6:5a
Jesus next gives instruction on how to pray well. Just as with giving, he gives a strong warning against pursuing public prayer for the sake of being seen and admired by other people. This doesn’t mean that no type of praying in public is warranted, but the motivations are what matter. The people who were praying on street corners were there specifically to be seen; they craved the recognition of others as religious all-stars.
Jesus contrasts that with a different way: going into a private room, closing off all visibility, and then pursuing prayer. Here, there would be no one to give you credit—except, of course, the one who sees everything. Jesus is encouraging us to pursue a reward, but the reward that comes from one who sees in secret. Practicing prayer this way implies trusting that God can see you and that he is pleased when we come to him. Going for the immediate reward of people’s praise doesn’t take patience, doesn’t take trust—but Jesus warns that if that’s all we run after, it’s the only thing we’ll get.
Another kind of false prayer offered here is the “babbling” mentioned in verse 7. While scholars debate on what exactly this means, the context makes it clear that those practicing prayer this way were doing so to try to manipulate their way into being heard. Whether it was a formula or just trying to gain attention, it’s in stark contrast with how a follower of Jesus can come to God. He assures us that God is our Father, and that he is acutely aware of our needs. He doesn’t need to be tricked into listening to you, his ears are turned attentively to you, ready to hear, ready to respond.
The ways we pray absolutely reveal what we really think about God. If we pray little, it can show that we doubt his love, or doubt his ability to help; it may even suggest we doubt he’s really there. If we pray timidly, it can reveal that we think of him as one who is perpetually angry with us, who is waiting for us to stop screwing up. When these hypocrites prayed in public, it showed that they thought God’s praise wasn’t as valuable as their peers’. When the pagans babbled, it showed they thought perhaps God was slow to hear.
Jesus wants us to know and trust that God is for us. If you haven’t yet come to Jesus, know that God wants to offer you forgiveness and peace based on Jesus having already received the punishment you deserve. When you are in Jesus, covered by him, you can experience full acceptance and love, and he wants you to be able to experience that, such that you don’t have to chase for it from weak, fallible humans. If our need for acceptance is met only by people, we will be crushed when they revoke it, when they can’t give it, or when others come in and cast doubt. It’s a diminishing and insecure reward.
In its stead, God offers to us an acceptance and love that will never shatter and never retreat, because the God who offers it is forever present, forever strong, and forever loving. What Jesus has done for us can never be revoked; if we are in him, our standing is sure.
Recognizing and meditating on this security purchased for us can bring us new confidence, strength and boldness in prayer, because it restores our trust and hope. Take some time now to pray freely to God, thanking him or confessing sin, expressing your emotions and speaking truth to yourself and to him. Ask him to help you grow in your ability to pray from trust in who he is and what he has done.