Sometimes, it’s a bit awkward praying in public. Can you focus on God without wondering about how you look and sound to other people?
In fact, didn’t Jesus teach his disciples to beware of public prayer (Matt 6:5-6)? Doesn’t it run the risk of playing to the audience, of being a religious performance instead of an intimate conversation with God?
Yes and yes. And yet, Jesus himself sometimes spoke with his Father in front of others, with the express purpose of doing so for their benefit. John tells us, for example, that as soon as the stone was removed from Lazarus’ tomb,
Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42, NRSV)
The relationship between Jesus and the Father is such that the Son is confident that his prayers are always heard. Here, Jesus also seems to be referring to a prayer that he has already made. After all, John doesn’t record any specific prayer in which Jesus actually asks the Father to bring Lazarus back. Some therefore speculate that Jesus may have already made the prayer silently in his heart. N. T. Wright even suggests that before Jesus arrived in Bethany, he had already prayed that Lazarus’ body would be preserved from decay. When the stone was removed, there was no stench (contrary to what Martha had feared), and thus Jesus knew that his prayer had been answered.
Whatever the truth of the matter, we do have the prayer Jesus actually uttered publicly. And he makes no bones about it: Listen up, people, because this is for your benefit. You’re about to see something you’re going to find hard to believe. But I’m not doing this just to make Martha and Mary happy. I’m doing this so you’ll know the truth of what I’ve been telling you all along — I have a unique relationship with my Father, and he is the one who has sent me to you.
I don’t know that it’s possible or even desirable to pray publicly without some awareness of the people who are listening. Such prayer can indeed be problematic if the purpose is to be admired by others for our eloquence or spirituality.
But we can learn at least two things from Jesus’ example here. First, what he says publicly is built on a robust life of private prayer. And second, although he is aware that others are listening, he isn’t seeking their approval or admiration. He is seeking their faith. He wants them to believe that he is who he says he is. It’s not for his benefit, but for theirs.
Because that’s what the Father desires as well.