Jesus spoke pretty strong words about prayer,
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”—Matthew 6:5–6
Is Jesus saying, as some have suggested, that it’s wrong to pray in corporate settings? I don’t think so. This isn’t about where it’s appropriate to pray as much as it’s a warning to watch our motivations. There’s always a temptation to turn faith into theater.
Once we enter into a community of faith (whether that community is a church, social media platform, or any other place where believers congregate), it becomes too easy to impress others with practices that should be sacred. We’re lauded for knowing the most Scripture, memorizing the most verses, sacrificing more than anyone, praying the longest, displaying the most “fruits of the spirit,” etc.
Although we’re sincere, there’s a constant struggle that—even in our most sincere desire to please God—we will develop habits that undermine the effectiveness of our disciplines. Like self-serving Pharisees, if we’re not vigilant, prideful behaviors will sneak into our most sacred spaces and set up shop.
Jesus, in trademark hyperbole, is saying that it’s better commit to a solitary prayer life than run the risk of praying prayers that are completely ineffective (in the same way that it’s better to lose your hand than to consistently give in to temptation—Mt. 5:30). I don’t think he’s instructing us to only pray in solitude, but he is encouraging us to value prayer as an end in itself rather than as a way to impress those around us.
With that in mind, here are a couple odd things that we tend to do in corporate prayer. Are all of them self-serving? Maybe not. But I am going to be honest with you; they often are when I do them.
1. Focusing all your mental energy on what you’re going to say
Imagine: you’re sitting in a circle and closing up a gathering with prayer. The prayer is travelling around the circle and there are three people left before it gets to you. But you haven’t heard one thing that anyone’s said. Why? Because all you’re thinking about is what you’re going to say when it’s your turn.
You definitely don’t want to say anything that’s going to come off as simplistic and silly, right? You want to pray powerful, meaningful prayers that will get the people around you muttering “amens.”
I struggle not to do this because I’m always tempted to use prayer as an opportunity to impress those around me.
It’s kind of like when I’m standing in the checkout line at the grocery store and something strikes me funny, so I make my ever-so-witty comment to my wife and/or kids loud enough for everyone to hear me. It annoys my family so much because they know that I’m only using them as a foil to impress others with my quick wit. I can’t imagine how annoying it has to be to God when we use prayer as an opportunity to do a similar thing.
Obviously you want to give what you’re going to say some thought, but be careful that you’re not just putting on a show.
2. Passive-aggressively praying for someone else’s benefit
Ugh, Becky . . . you know that she went out to see Fifty Shades of Grey last night, and you’re really ticked about it. It’s about time she was convicted for her rotten morals—and this is your chance. When it gets to be your turn to pray, you clear your throat and start praying (loud enough for her to hear):
“Dear Lord, you want us to be ‘in the world and not of it.’ Help us to make wise choices with how we spend our time and how we spend our money. Help us not to entertain ourselves by setting our eyes on the kind of sin you came to die for . . .”*
If that doesn’t convict crummy ole Becky, nothing will.
Except prayer isn’t an opportunity for your veiled sermonettes (not to mention it’s incredibly immature to use this tactic to correct people).
*This kind of prayer also works to offer political commentary, complain about the food at potlucks, and more!
3. Showing off your vast knowledge of Scripture
What if you could pray really impressive prayers and show off how much of the Bible you know at one time!? Well, you can (although you probably shouldn’t)!
Have you ever listened to a prayer where the person keeps quoting Scripture to God? “Lord, you say in your word . . .” If they’re really ambitious they’ll even include the verse (just in case God needs to look it up). “Father, you say in 1 Corinthians 3:6 that . . .”
I once heard a guy, and I’m not exaggerating, quote upwards of 17 verses in one prayer. IT WAS AMAZING! I kept imaging God listening like, “Man, I am definitely answering this guy’s prayers. Look how many verses he knows!”
Seriously, who are you doing that for? Now, I’m not suggesting that it’s never appropriate to quote Scripture in prayer. There are times when I will remind God that I am resting on a particular promise or I’ll even try and twist his arm a little by reminding him of something he seems to have forgotten.
But you have to be really careful because it’s easy to mistreat Scripture when you’re looking for prayer kudos.
Here are a couple bonus habits that, although they’re probably not done for attention, I kind of find them comical anyway:
a. Repeating “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Father” ad nauseam
Need a second to pause and gather your thoughts? Just say “Lord.” It’s the holy version of “um.” Honestly, I can never figure out how this one happens:
“Jesus, please be with the college group on their mission, dear Lord. And help Antonio to feel better, Lord, so that he can drive the van, Lord, and help Jennifer find her passport, Lord. Also, Father God, help us raise the rest of the funds we need for the trip, Lord.”
Strange right? You should try doing that in your next conversation. Just keep dropping the person’s name randomly—for no reason. I bet they love it.
b. Getting all old-timey on Jehovah
This is a classic that’s particular to the older people in our congregations (although I’ve seen my share of peers do it, too). It’s when you assume that the creator of the universe only speaks in King James.
“Lord, thou art a great and holy God, and we cometh before thee today and beseech thee for . . .”
Leave me a comment and tell me what interesting or questionable prayer habits I’ve missed!