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. 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.
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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:5–9)
Jesus introduced the Lord’s Prayer with a warning: “you must not be like the hypocrites”. Well, fair enough. Who’d want to be a hypocrite? He then goes on to describe what he means: “for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others”.
The issue here is the direction of prayer. Are you praying in order to relate to God (an ‘upwards’ prayer) or to be noticed by others (a ‘sideways’ prayer). If you are praying to be heard by other people, then you are not really speaking to God. You are speaking to the people around you, and if they are impressed with you then you have had some reward.
As you are reading this, I suspect you are thinking that this is all rather academic as you have precisely no desire to go outdoors, find a corner in the lane and start praying as people pass by. As the service in church draws to a close, you are not gripped with the desire to stand up and impress the inhabitants of the pews around you with your flights of language.
True enough, but I don’t think I am stretching things as I make a further point. I wonder if you ever listen to your own prayers? What I mean is this: do you ever pray and think your prayers are shallow, or incoherent? Well if that’s the case: don’t! God is your Father, and his opinion of your prayers is more important than your own opinion of those prayers!
At its most profound prayer is a pouring out of your heart before God, and that can be untidy. Yet God hears, and delights. When you pray don’t worry about anyone else, or even yourself. Simply focus on God and pour forth.