Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:6a “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet,. . .”
“Closet” referred originally to a storage room, and eventually to any place of private seclusion and retirement. Jesus did not forbid public praying. He Himself prayed before a crowd at His baptism (LK 3:21), at the grave of Lazarus (JN 11:41-42), at the last supper (JN 17), and on the cross (MT 27:46). The conflict is not private prayer versus public prayer, but private prayer versus hypocritical public prayer. The issue is our motive in public prayer, not public praying itself.
Nothing is wrong with public prayer when done properly. We are to testify of our faith openly, as when we thank God before eating in a public place. We are to show constant, unwavering devotion, as did Daniel, who disregarded the king’s edict and thrice daily while praying opened his windows for all to see. In corporate worship, we pray publicly, hoping to excite others to prayer by our example.
There is most definitely a time and place for public praying. This having been said, we hasten to verbalize a caution. Public prayer can not take the place of private prayer. In fact, “social praying will be a reality only in proportion as it proceeds from a gathering of men accustomed to private prayer” (Nicoll).
Effective Christian living hinges on prayer, and the secret of success in prayer is success in secret. Trees owe their beauty to the work of secret, unseen roots. Similarly, for Christians to do well, they must strike deep into the soil of secret, private “closet” praying. Secret prayer deepens the secret life, and thus serves as our best safeguard against public failure. No Christian can ever be safe in their walk apart from regular, often, and earnest private prayer time.
“Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (GN 24:63). Jacob was alone when he wrestled with God (GN 32:24). Joshua was alone when he met the captain of the armies of the Lord (JS 5:14). Elijah’s greatest encounter with God was not among the crowd on Mt. Carmel but when alone in a cave (1 K 19:13). Paul spent three years alone in Arabia, seeking after God (GL 1:17-18). “Peter went up upon the housetop to pray” (AC 10:9). Our precious Master often found a secluded “closet” for prayer. Before daybreak, He once “departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (MK 1:35). On another occasion, He “departed into a mountain to pray” (MK 6:46). In Jerusalem, Gethsemane Garden was His private spot to pray.
Matthew Henry states three advantages to praying in a secret place. First, in a private place, we are unheard, thus avoiding inhibitions. Privacy grants us greater freedom to be honest and transparent, to descend more deeply into our own hearts. We all have secret sins and secret temptations which need to be dealt with in secret prayer. In a private place we can speak more freely. No one is there to reproach us or to gossip about us later. We can be our truest selves before God.
Second, in a private place, we are undisturbed, thus avoiding distraction. Only a wicked life hinders prayer more than distractions do. Our minds tend to stray, to be easily distracted. We have trouble keeping our thoughts from wandering, even when in prayer. Thus, we often have to find a place where we can shut out the world, and the noise and glare of society. As long as we are distracted by the visible, we will be unable to focus on the Invisible One. To focus intently on the Unseen One, we must go where sights and sounds neither disturb nor distract.
Third, in a private place, we are unobserved, thus avoiding ostentation. In a synagogue or on street corners, people compliment us, but in a closet, only God is the audience. This is one reason private prayer is often so hard. No one pats us on the back for it. This difficulty, though, is more than compensated for by the fact isolation removes hypocrisy as a possible liability to us. In private, we can’t be trying to win people’s applause, and are thus set free from fear of trying to do so.
Matt. 6:6b “. . .and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father,. . .”
Do not flitter away private moments. They are precious. Use them wisely. Pray. Blessed are they who have a burning desire to pray, who have strong inner urges to commune with God, who feel self irresistibly drawn to this wonderful task. Pray for God to grant us more often seasons when nothing can satisfy us but prayer. Pray for a yearning that matches the intense homesickness of a child away from beloved parents for the first time. Pray for a longing for your Father.
Note the family emphasis. Love is to dominate. We are to love God, enjoying Him as “Father.” If God truly is what we seek in prayer, the “closet” will be little problem for us. Possibly the best indicator of true love to our Father is a sincere disposition to engage often in secret prayer with Him, but if we have trouble praying in private, it could mean something is wrong in our relationship with God.
This may be why Jesus neither prescribed particular times of day to pray nor commanded even the frequencies of prayer times. To specify times and how often would lead to formalism and ritualism. Jesus wants our godliness to be voluntary.
True prayer entails loving interaction with the Father. The main point of prayer is to experience God. Our requests must rise from a conscious sense of being with Him. In prayer it is possible, and often commendable, to have communion without specific communication, but communication without communion is impossible. To say words without being mindful of God is tantamount to saying a thing requested is more important than knowing and enjoying the One prayed to.
Matt. 6:6c “. . .which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall
reward thee openly.”
Our Father sees us in the secret place. This is blessed consolation. Every minute of every day and night in every spot of earth or sea, we can find a prayer closet where the Father waits, wanting to listen and respond.
He ever wishes to “reward” us. The hypocrites receive their reward, the response of people. True pray-ers will not lose their reward, the response of God.
God’s reward is that He hears and answers our requests. We pray, knowing His “yes” will be an abundant yes, and will spur us to pray even more fervently. We pray, knowing His “no” means our request was for something harmful to us; He has better things planned for us. We pray, knowing His “wait” means He wants to give us more of Himself, that He will say yes or no at a more appropriate time when we can better handle it. When we pray, always expect the best answer.
John Bunyan tells how beggars in his day carried with them bowls when they begged at a house. Some brought small bowls. Thus, no matter how rich the homeowner, the beggar left with little, for the wealthy could give no more than the poor man’s bowl could contain. Those who brought large bowls usually carried them home full, and thus received more. Always come to God with confidence.
As long as the widow kept bringing pots, God kept sending oil for her to sell to live on, but when she ran out of pots, “the oil stopped” (2 K 4:6 NAS). We always run out of requests long before God runs out of “rewards,” of answers.
The writer of Hebrews (11:6) states it bluntly, “He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder.” We must believe God wants to be pleased and wants to please. He is personal, loving, interested and involved in our situation. God loves us and wants to shower His goodwill upon us. If we do not believe this, we would be better off to ignore God than to take time to pray to Him.
We can believe God exists, but does not respond or reward. Cretans painted Jupiter without eyes and ears. Epicurus said, “God does nothing.” Deists say God is Transcendent Creator. Einstein said, “Certainly there is a God. Any man who doesn’t believe in a cosmic force is a fool, but we could never know Him.”
Philosophers speak of a Supreme Being; astronomers see a Great Architect. Physicists see the Great Mathematician; scientists speak of a First Cause; biologists may call Him Origin of Life. These are impressive accolades, but fall far short of fully describing a God who cares, who responds, who rewards.
There is only one God, and He wants to interact with human beings. Our faith is not in vain. Jesus does hear our prayers, He does respond, He does reward. Therefore, pray, pray often, pray without ceasing, pray publicly and privately, pray lovingly, pray expectantly, pray more than you’ve ever dreamed of praying before.