In the Sermon on the Mount (the longest recorded sermon by Jesus in the Bible), Jesus tells us not to pray in public, but to pray in private:
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 6:6
And then Jesus mentions not to pray for a long time:
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:7-8
And if we jump to 1 Thessalonians 5:17, we find Paul tells us “pray continually.”
So the difficulty is three-fold (or more):
- Should we or shouldn’t we pray in public
- Should we pray short prayers or long prayers, and
- Why pray if God knows what we need before we ask?
Prayer “difficulties” are numerous throughout the Bible, so I’ll cover them during several blogs:
I’ll cover public prayer only today. Should we pray publicly or privately?
First, we find example after example of Jesus praying privately:
After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. – Mark 6:46
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. – Mark 1:35
Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. – John 6:15
41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:41-42
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. – Luke 5:16
However, we also find Jesus thanking God through prayer at the following events:
- At the last supper, praying for the disciples and all believers – John 17
- At Lazarus’ grave: “41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’” –John 11:41-43
- Feeding of 5000: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.” – Mark 6:41
And then in the following events, we find evidence of public prayers:
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. – Matthew 19:13
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers. – Matthew 21:12-13
Throughout other passages of the Bible, we find public prayer:
When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. – Acts 12:12
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. – James 5:16a
23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. – Acts 4:23-24
22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said: “Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. – 1 Kings 8:22-23
Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:8 for men to “pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands.”
My conclusion then is that when Jesus said to go off privately to pray, He was right. Our prayers should be private so that we can focus on having a “communication” with God; an opportunity to hear, not just talk to God.
At the same time, it is also right to pray publicly, as long as it’s done with the right heart – see upcoming blog on “Praying the Will of God.” Jesus did rebuke the Pharisees for public prayer, but it was because they didn’t pray publicly for the right reasons. (“For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” – Matthew 6:5)
The former passages above show that it is right to publicly thank God for His blessings, as well as to pray publicly for large groups and events.