Hypocrisy in Prayer

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  – Matthew 6:5-6

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a prayer meeting or small group, and it’s time to pray. Everyone decides to take turns praying for the various requests that have been mentioned, so you all bow your heads and the first person begins praying. You know your turn is coming up soon, so you decide to get a “head start” and “plan what you’re going to say.” Instead of agreeing in prayer with fellow believers, for the next several minutes you spend your time rehearsing how you’ll open your prayer to God and eloquently thank Him for His goodness and grace in a way that makes everyone wonder if you pray even more than Jesus did. After all, you wouldn’t want to sound silly during prayer time, right?

And then it happens – the person in front of you stops praying. It’s your turn. No more time to prepare, the spot light is all on you. A quick moment of panic sets in, but you manage to keep your cool. In the presence of everyone, you brilliantly and passionately recite your pre-planned prayer as if the Spirit were truly leading, and before you know it, you’ve said “Amen” without “sounding silly” or “making any mistakes.” As the next person begins praying, you settle back in your chair and inwardly pat yourself on the back for praying so spiritually and pulling off yet another successful public prayer.

It sounds ridiculous, but how many of us know what this is like? For many of us, praying in public is more about performing for men than it is about talking to God. We often judge our public prayers more by what others think of our wording than by how God actually answers them. Perhaps no spiritual discipline has become more infected with hypocrisy than prayer.

This is certainly true in my life. Looking back at my life before turning 20, I can hardly remember a time when I prayed publicly without hypocrisy in my heart. I was more concerned with the admiration of people than the presence of God. I can honestly say that I didn’t even care if God answered my prayers – I just wanted to sound good.

Even worse, my public prayer was actually a reflection of my shameful neglect of private prayer. I spent very little time in private prayer, and when I did it was only to get something from God or to half-heartedly repent of sin. So naturally when it came time to pray in public, I wasn’t very confident about that whole “praying at all times in the Spirit” thing Paul talks about. And if you can’t pray at all times in the Spirit, why not fake it, right?

But there was a problem.

You see, God wasn’t glorified in my fake prayers, I was. I wasn’t praying to give praise to God, I was praying to get praise from men. My prayers were about me – not about what God could do about the legitimate needs of those around me – and I know I’m not the only one. Praying hypocritically is a temptation that nearly all of us face every time we pray in public.

Christ spoke of prayer often during His earthly ministry, so it might surprise you to notice that He never spoke out against anyone’s prayer life – except the Pharisees. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intentionally calls out their hypocritical public prayers.

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” – Matthew 6:5

There are several important lessons we can take away from this verse, so let’s take a closer look at what Jesus said.

First, notice what they loved. The Pharisees didn’t love praying – they loved being noticed while praying. That’s why they would stand in the busy street corners and intersections where they could be seen by crowds of people from several different directions. They loved it when people stopped to admire them as they prayed their long and eloquent prayers. Surely if others were this impressed by their prayers, God would be impressed too, right?

And as much as I hate to admit it, we’ve bought the same lie the Pharisees believed. We would never say this, but deep down we think that the more spiritual we sound, the more likely God is to be pleased with us and answer our prayers – but that’s not how it works.

“I didn’t even care if God answered my prayers – I just wanted to sound good.”

Second, notice who they wanted to hear them. The Pharisees weren’t nearly as concerned with being heard by God as they were with being heard by men. To them, being heard by men was a necessity, being heard by God was merely a preference. And isn’t that often true of us as well? In many of our public prayers, the audience we really seek is with man, not God. Meanwhile, Satan is celebrating because once again we’ve “gone to the Lord in prayer” without actually communicating with Him.

Stop for a moment and read that one more time. How many times have you and I turned public prayer into a spiritual speech directed at the people around us and thus “prayed” without ever actually speaking to God? No wonder our prayers are so often ineffective.

Lastly, notice their reward. The Pharisees sought the praise and approval of men, and that’s exactly what they got. But God wants something so much greater for your prayer life, which is why in the very next verse, Christ says,

“But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  – Matthew 6:6

The Reward of Pure Prayer

About five years ago, my private prayer life was really struggling, and I found myself studying this passage of Scripture. As I examined these verses, I began to ask myself what reward God has for those who spend time in private prayer with Him. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t figure out what it was at first, but I knew from this verse that there was a reward for those who pray in secret, so I decided to put God’s Word to the test.

I had a little storage closet in my office at work, and I decided to make that room my new prayer closet, so I spent a day cleaning it out. I set up a chair to sit on, started a prayer journal, began reading books on prayer. Every day I went into my prayer closet and spent quality time in prayer with my Father, and my life hasn’t been the same. What I found was incredible – the reward Christ promises in this verse is not just that our prayers would be answered, or that our needs would be met. The reward Christ is talking about is intimacy with Himself.

As I began devoting myself to prayer, it began to feel less forced and more natural. Because no one was watching, I was free to be myself without any temptation of hypocrisy, and before I knew it, I was pouring out my heart to God as I should have been all along. My prayers weren’t fake and pre-planned, they were real.

I actually began looking forward to prayer because it was becoming a delight instead of an awkward chore to check off my list. I began to realize that prayer is more about fellowship with God than the requests that we bring to Him. In other words, I actually began to experience the intimacy with God that I pretended to have when acting like a hypocrite. And that, my friend, is the reward of private prayer.

“The Pharisees didn’t love praying – they loved being noticed while praying.”

It gets even better. Now that my private prayer life has seen such growth, I find that my public prayers are more authentic. Instead of caring about what others think, I now find myself talking naturally with God as I share with Him the people and requests that are on my heart. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that when I pray in public, I am pouring my heart out before Him just as I would in private.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot to learn when it comes to prayer, and I’m learning every day. But I’m in awe of God’s grace and majesty as He continues to reveal Himself to me.

You see, God desires to reward you with something so much greater than the admiration of those around you. The reward of private prayer is God’s desire and willingness to reveal Himself to us, so that we would know Him more and find that He is our greatest treasure, satisfaction, and reward. When we pray, we are spending time in the very presence of our Heavenly Father, seeking His face, His direction for our lives, and His answer to prayer. How tragic that the Pharisees were settling for the praise of men, when God Himself was waiting to show them who He really is! And it should bring us to tears to realize how often we have missed this blessing and reward of private prayer as well.

“Before I knew it, I was pouring out my heart to God as I should have been all along.”

What if we would stop seeking the approval of men with our prayers, and start seeking intimate fellowship with God instead? How many prayers would God have answered if we had only made Him our prize? How different would our lives be – and how different would this world be – if we made prayer all about God’s desire for us to know Him and be used by Him? I can’t help but think that the world we live in would be an entirely different place.

You see, God doesn’t care when we stumble and fumble over our words or when we have those awkward silences where we’re not quite sure what to say. He doesn’t care when we forget a prayer request (He knows them all anyway), or when we “sound silly.” Unlike mankind, God simply isn’t concerned with those things. He’s concerned with our hearts.

If your prayer life is struggling, let me encourage you to trust Christ’s words and begin cultivating the habit of spending time in private prayer before God. There’s no greater reward than having an intimate conversation with your Creator and God, and we have that privilege through the blood of Jesus Christ. Tell Him that you desire to know Him more, and ask Him to reveal Himself to you. Confess and repent of the hypocrisy in your prayer life, and plead with Him to give you victory. Empty yourself of pride, and ask Him to fill you with the love of Christ. Surrender to God’s working in your heart through the Holy Spirit who dwells in you, and you will begin to reap the greatest reward of prayer: intimacy with Almighty God.


Recommended Resources:

Power in Prayer – Andrew Murray

The Believer’s Prayer Life – Andrew Murray

The Ministry of Intercessory Prayer – Andrew Murray

The Complete Works of E. M. Bounds on Prayer – E. M. Bounds

The Power of Prayer in a Believer’s Life – Charles Spurgeon

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God  – Timothy Keller

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