Now is the time to take a fresh look at your private prayer life and dream about a tweak or two you could make in the coming days. Typically the best way to grow and make headway is not a total overhaul, but identifying one or a couple small changes that will pay dividends over time.
Or maybe you have little-to-no real private prayer life (which might be as common among professing Christians as it’s ever been), and you really need to start from scratch. You may feel first-hand the weight of Francis Chan’s alarm, “My biggest concern for this generation is your inability to focus, especially in prayer.” Perhaps it’s true of you, and you’re ready for change.
Whether you’re in need of a little self-evaluation, or learning as a beginner, I’d like to offer a few practical flashpoints on private prayer. But let’s start with why private prayer, or “closet prayer,” is so important in the first place.
Praying “in the Closet”
“Closet prayer” gets its name from Jesus’s famous “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5–8. The context is Jesus’s instructions for not “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1).
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. (Matthew 6:5–6)
Just as praying in earshot of others had its immanent rewards in first-century Judaism, so also it does in our twenty-first-century church communities, whether it’s in church or small group or just at the table with friends and family. It can be easy to slide into impressing others as the driving motivation for our praying with others, whether its our length, tone, topic, or jargon, all carefully chosen to produce certain effects in our human hearers alone.
It’s a tough line to walk, because we must pray publicly — in church and in our homes and elsewhere — and public prayer should take into account that others are listening; it should have others in mind. But the danger lurks of sidelining God and shifting our focus to making ourselves look impressive.
Test of Authenticity
But “closet prayer” offers a test of authenticity for our public praying. As Tim Keller comments on Matthew 6:5–6,
The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social expectations, or perhaps by the anxiety caused by troubling circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God as Father, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. They pursue it even during times of spiritual dryness, when there is no social or experiential payoff. (Prayer, 23)
Private prayer is an important test of whether we are real.
“The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life.”Tweet
Remedy for Inadequacy
But private prayer is not just a test of our trueness, but also an ongoing remedy for our inadequacies and the lack of desire we often feel for God. Prayer, says John Piper, is “not only the measure of our hearts, revealing what we really desire, it is also the indispensible remedy for our hearts when we do not desire God the way we ought” (When I Don’t Desire God, 153).
Private prayer shows who we really are spiritually and is essential in healing the many places we find ourselves broken, needy, lacking, and rebellious.
Written by David Mathis
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