January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.
In Matthew 6:5–6, Jesus answers our second question about the “how” of prayer: Where should we pray? He says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
We should not interpret Jesus’ words too literally. True, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). But He also prayed in front of others, such as the crowd of 5,000 men, besides women and children, whom He fed miraculously (Matthew 14:19).
Jesus’ disciples also prayed in front of others. According to Acts 1:14 and 2:1–13, it was because of what the crowds saw happening at a Jerusalem prayer meeting that they asked Peter, “What does this mean?” God used the evangelistic sermon Peter preached in response to their question as a tool to convert about 3,000 of them that very day. All because of a public prayer meeting!
When Jesus tells us to pray in our rooms, in other words, He is more concerned about the spiritual location of our hearts than the geographical location of our bodies. He does not want us to be hypocrites, which derives from the Greek word for an actor. A hypocrite acts one way in public but lives another way in private. His onstage role is driven by a need for public approval. Because Jesus does not want our prayers to be corrupted by this hypocritical desire “to be seen by others,” however, He counsels us to pray alone, in secret, behind closed doors. Solitude enhances authenticity. Alone, we are able to speak our real concerns as our real selves to a real God who really cares.
Unfortunately, many people have trouble practicing solitude. We live in a highly individualistic culture, and they feel isolated and alone. When Jesus talks about solitude, they feel creeping pangs of despair. “I am already lonely,” they say to themselves, “must I continue to be lonely to experience God?” No! Solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Solitude is healthy individualism; loneliness is unhealthy individualism. In the Christian life, there must be balance between solitude and sociality. Without that balance, we can neither be our authentic selves nor experience healthy relationships. So, let us heed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone….”
Let us make time and space in our lives to approach God in solitude. By the same token, we should not give up meeting together; instead, we should encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25). As long as our desire is to be rewarded by God rather than seen by others, we can draw near to Him alone and together.