Most would agree that one of the basic elements of Christianity is prayer.
But when you survey the wide variety of forms of Christianity, you find that there are many different practices and ideas about prayer. Consider:
- Those who are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox typically see prayer as the recitation of prewritten prayers. Roman Catholicism has hundreds of these prayers for people to recite in a variety of situations. For instance, there are specific prayers for Catholics to recite before and after meals, when dealing with depression, and in many other situations. Catholic and Orthodox traditions include the practice of praying to Mary, angels and saints as intercessors between God and man.
- In general, the Protestant world is less liturgical about prayers. There are many different forms of praying in Protestantism—from emotional prayers spoken from the pulpits of churches to prayer groups meeting together to pray about specific issues.
Though the way people pray varies within mainstream Christianity, all major branches frequently pray “the Lord’s Prayer” found in Matthew 6:9-13. Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants will pray the Lord’s Prayer many times throughout their lives because they believe that Jesus instructed His followers to pray this prayer verbatim.
But is this what Jesus Christ intended when He taught His disciples about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount? What did Jesus really teach about prayer?
The Lord’s Prayer is found in the middle of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount—the heart and core of what genuine Christianity is all about. Christ broached the subject of prayer in a portion of the sermon that explains Christians should not flaunt their good deeds for everybody to see. He said that good deeds—giving to charitable causes, serving others, etc.—should be done “in secret” (Matthew 6:4). He didn’t mean that we should be embarrassed about doing good, but that our motivation should be to do good because we are trying to please God and do the right thing. Our motivation should not be for other people to see us!
After making that important point, Christ transitioned to the topic of prayer. He gave a number of points that are very important for all Christians to understand—and that contradict many of the practices found in Christianity today.
Prayer is not for show
Jesus applied the same principle He made about good works to prayer: “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men” (verse 5). In other words, we shouldn’t use prayer to show off our spirituality to others.
Pray in private
Instead of a public show, Jesus taught: “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (verse 6).
Instead of praying publicly to be seen by others, prayer is to be done primarily in private. There is an important reason for this. Prayer is designed as a means of communication to “draw near to God” (James 4:8)—to deepen our personal relationship with Him. In order to build a strong relationship with our Creator, we need to spend daily, concentrated time praying to Him privately, one-on-one. Jesus Christ didn’t just teach about this; it was a regular part of His life (Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12). (Note that there are times when praying in public is appropriate, such as at a family meal, church service, wedding or a funeral.)