It can be pretty convicting when we think about our own prayer lives. We're so busy that we only pray sometimes. We pray now and then. But God desires so much more for us when it comes to prayer. Through prayer, we can not only intercede for others, but we can know God intimately. Through prayer, we can make a difference in this world...and yet we often fail.
What is it about us that resists prayer? Even the apostle Paul recognized what a struggle prayer is when he noted in Romans 8:26, "We do not know what to pray for as we ought...." It's amazing to think that the great Christian, Paul, struggled in his prayer life! And so do we! Which is why we cry out with the disciples, "Lord, teach us to pray."
Jesus welcomes our questions. He wants us to pray...to come to him and ask him for what is on our hearts. But how should we pray? Jesus gives us a word about prayer in Matthew 6:5, where he says:
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites."
Now if Jesus tells us not to pray like hypocrites, it's pretty important that we understand what a hypocrite is. The word hypocrite comes from the Greek theater, and was used to denote someone who was an actor. And in Greek theater, actors would put on a mask to play various parts in a play.
What Jesus is saying is pretty clear. When we pray and put on a performance...rather than genuinely pray...we're simply playing a part. When we hide our true identity — our self-righteousness — behind our own prayers and stand at center stage, we are just playing a part, we are acting. We are just pretending to pray. And that is hypocrisy.
Jesus said don't pray like the hypocrites because,
"...they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others."
There is nothing wrong with standing to pray. In fact, during those times, the Jewish people would often stand, lifting up holy hands in prayer to God. The posture is not the point here. Jesus is not condemning public prayer. The hypocrisy is that these men, who loved to stand and pray on the street corners and in the sanctuaries and the synagogues, did it to be seen by men.
That is the problem. There is the hypocrisy...to pray for the applause of men rather than the applause of God. Hypocrites are more interested in their own reputation than in personal righteousness. They desire the approval of men rather than the approval of God.
So Jesus rips off the mask of phoniness and says that when you and I pray, don't pretend. Don't just pray with words that mean nothing. Don't pray to perform.
The only way I know how you and I can identify this in our lives is to ask ourselves, "Do I only pray when people are watching? Do I simply pray so others will think more of me or the best of me?"
Those of us who are called upon to pray publicly must be very careful that we don't pray professional prayers. And the only way I know how to guard against this in my own life is to first engage the God of heaven through private and personal prayer. When I do that, then I am ready for public prayer.
So let me ask you, what's your prayer life like? Really, what's it like? Not just what men see, but what God sees. Is it truly your desire to draw near to God, to know him, to talk with him? So many Christians are all showcase and no warehouse. Everything's out front, but there's nothing on the inside. And that's what Jesus is warning us about here. Don't pretend to pray, but pray. And don't pray to perform.