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The Subtle Self-Deception of Hypocrisy in Prayer

  • I wish I sounded more intelligent when I prayed

  • I hope she doesn't call on me, I'm really not good at praying in groups

  • If I prayed better, God would probably answer me more

Have you ever made a statement or asked a question like these? As we begin to study the subject of prayer from the New Testament, we find that Jesus addresses questions just like these in the Sermon on the Mount.

Often regarded as the crown jewel of Jesus’ teaching, readers go wrong when they interpret this famous sermon as a set of instructions on how to become a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. Instead, the message functions much like the Old Testament law. According to the Apostle Paul, those commandments were never intended to serve as a pathway to Heaven, but are more like a strict teacher whose tests we will always fail no matter how much we study! The law, then, points us to Christ, the only perfect student (Galatians 3:24). Similarly, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the radical difference between religious people and redeemed people so that his audience would see how thoroughly corrupt they were. The sermon serves this purpose so well because it focuses not so much on outward behaviors and activities, but on attitudes of the heart that drive them. Poking around in the dark corners of our motives ought to convince anyone who thinks they can achieve glory through their own good works to abandon the effort and seek the substitute righteousness of Jesus Christ!

Having accomplished that mission in the life of those who are saved, these teachers demonstrate the kind of righteous living that the Spirit of God will be producing in them throughout their lives. Just as before, this righteousness is not merely found in adding or subtracting a few external behaviors, but through total re-creation of the inner man.

For that reason, when we come to chapter 6, we aren’t surprised at all to find Christ shining a light on the desires and motives that can so easily corrupt otherwise right religious observances such as:

· Giving (v.2-4)

· Praying (v5-15)

· Fasting (v.16-18)

Matthew 6:5-8

“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. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

There are two issues that the Lord focuses on here. The first and the focus of today’s study is hypocritical prayer. Even our worldly culture hates a hypocrite. The word was a Greek theatrical term that referred to an actor who wore a mask on stage to play a part. The hypocrite found a public location and prayed in such a way that the people might hold them in high-esteem as a great spiritual man. Their reward, of course, is strictly the human awe they seek by their elaborate public declarations. God certainly doesn’t owe them anything. It’s scary to think that we might be in danger of doing the same thing when we pray: simply playing a role, rather than genuinely talking with our Heavenly Father.

Rather than immediately thinking of our Islamic neighbors who are always ready to kneel with a prayer mat at the appropriate time and in the middle of an airport if necessary, we would do well to ask ourselves a few diagnostic questions to evaluate our true motive in prayer.

The first diagnostic question is this: Do I pray more frequently in public than I do in private?

In addition to prayer meetings, and church services, a teacher might be expected by her position in a Christian school to start each class off with prayer, or a father might be expected by his position in a Christian family to lead in prayer before meals, or with the children in preparation for bedtime. If these public prayers are the sum total of our conversation with God throughout a normal day, it may be indicative that our prayers are more of an act than an act of faith.

Another diagnostic question we ought to ask is: Do I use the same language when I pray with others or by myself? Sincere prayers, even when prayed in the presence of others, are conversations with the Lord of Hosts. Certainly, we want to pray respectfully. We have also learned that scripturally-centered prayers are particularly valuable, but are we overly concerned to “sound spiritual” by using more theological jargon, or adopt more reverent-sounding language such as “thee’s and thou’s” when praying with others, than we would use if we were praying on our own? If so, our hearts may be more focused on elevating our status in the community rather than exalting the Lord.

Finally, one must ask: Why is it that I will not pray in public? It is just as likely that an individual who does NOT publicly pray is equally self-focused as the one who does so hypocritically. In speaking of an inner chamber, The Lord does not forbid public prayer. In fact, he expects and commands praying with other believers elsewhere in Scripture (Acts 1:24, 3:1, and 4:24 for example), so the presence of witnesses is not the primary issue. Neither is the location. Synagogues are mentioned right alongside the street corner and, while praying in the street seems particularly “showy”, Jesus never would have thought it improper to pray at a public gathering in the synagogue. His clear purpose is to critique those whose primary audience is the crowd and whose primary goal is maintaining or increasing their own spiritual reputation. Is it to protect ourselves that we avoid speaking to the Lord with others? For fear of saying something incorrectly or being judged? If so, then who is the true audience?

Kent Hughes warns that this is not the struggle of a mere few especially hardened individuals, but that it reveals just how entrenched sin is in all of us. He's right to grieve that-

“in the ultimate spiritual activity we can in one moment be on our knees in prayer pouring out our soul to God in worship, only to have the prayer just as suddenly dissolve into preoccupation with self.”

But while we grieve, we should also lean into Christ even more as our Righteous Savior and rejoice that prayer isn't supposed to be that hard. Talking to our Heavenly Father should be as easy and natural as a conversation with any other trusted friend. Whether leading a small group to ask the Lord for wisdom before a Bible Study, putting your hand on a needy shoulder and crying out for grace in that life, or sitting in solitude with an open Bible, praying out loud the words of the text, He must be our audience.

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