Are you comfortable praying in public? Some people I know refuse to do it; they feel self-conscious when other people are listening. And even those of us who regularly pray out loud can sometimes wonder how much of what we’re doing is prayer, and how much is show.
As a minister, I’ve prayed aloud with different groups in different settings for different purposes. And I’ll admit: part of me is always tempted to turn the prayer into a mini-sermon. Call it an occupational hazard of sorts.
It’s not a bad thing to reaffirm our theological commitments as we pray aloud. But the authoritative stance of a teacher or preacher is one thing; penitence and humility are another. I’m not saying that there’s an infallible bright-line rule to know when we’ve slipped from praying into preaching. But if we begin by talking to God, and slide into talking about God (sometimes even in the third person!), we should start getting suspicious.
. . .
I’m not wanting us to police public prayer, as if we needed one more reason to be self-conscious. Rather, I want to draw out a personal implication of one of the lessons we’ve learned from Psalm 139. God knows everything we say before we say it. If that’s true, then why do we sometimes feel the need to “pretty up” our language when we pray out loud? Why do we feel compelled to use more high-sounding words that we would never use otherwise, outside of prayer, outside of church?
On the one hand, it’s because we’ve been taught, explicitly or implicitly, what is and isn’t acceptable. We are shaped and molded by the people we hang out with. Episcopalians and charismatics, for example, will pray with a different cadence, vocabulary, and intent. Transplant a person from one context to the other, and they will learn to adapt — or else risk being corrected or ostracized for being too different. Too starchy. Too impertinent. Too somber. Too enthusiastic.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t aspire to be rugged individualists in our prayer. It matters who’s listening and what they hear. Didn’t Jesus himself pray to his Father and for the sake of his human audience at the same time (e.g., John 11:41-42)?
I would hope that we would experience some freedom in believing, with the psalmist, that God already knows our words before we utter them aloud. When we’re conscious of the people who are listening, we may wonder if we’re “getting it right.” Am I being pious enough? Sophisticated enough? Faithful enough? Am I using the right vocabulary and catchphrases? And beneath all of that can be a more fundamental question: Am I praying like someone who belongs here?
But there is no reason to do this with God.
. . .
Don’t get me wrong. Words matter; we can sin with our words. But I think both Jesus and the psalmist would agree: what matters more is the heart behind the words, and God already knows our hearts intimately (Luke 6:45; Ps 139:1, 23). It’s not as if God would say, “Your heart is corrupt, but wow, that was an impressive prayer, so who cares?” Nor would God say, “Your heart is pure, but go work on your diction and vocabulary and try again. Maybe you’ll get it right next time.”
God knows even the words we don’t speak. If our hearts are in alignment with him, that should give us freedom in the words we do speak. And hopefully, we can give others the same freedom, creating communities that can address God together, with one heart expressed through different voices.