Judging prayer

by Barry Newton

My most embarrassing moment in a fast food restaurant occurred years ago when I was a summer youth intern. On that fateful day, I found myself sitting across from a local church member with our hot hamburgers still wrapped in their paper.

I asked him if he would like to lead us in prayer thanking God for our food. His voice erupted as though he was speaking through a megaphone to those beyond the glass windows.  “Our Father in heaven, thank you for allowing two Christians to get together …”

Those first words are forever painfully burned into my memory. His prayer which went on and on could not end quick enough for me. Maybe that is how he always prays, but considering normal conventions it seemed like he was talking to those around us rather than to God.

I try not to be judgmental. But how could I not immediately recall Jesus’ words, “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 men” Matthew 6:5.

Whenever I think about hypocrites praying, there is another lunch memory that surfaces from my single years.  In a university cafeteria, I asked the young Christian lady sitting across from me if she would like me to lead us in thanking God for our food.

With a concerned smile she said, “I don’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.” Obviously, she too knew about Matthew 6. However, she continued, “Here, we don’t pray before our meals.”

A question flashed crossed my mind.  What was her real concern?  Was she afraid of damaging her Christian influence among her peers, or was she actually afraid of being identified with Christ?

These questions brought a different verse to mind. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words … the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” Mark 8:38.

Did my position flip-flop? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. As far as I can tell both verses condemn seeking the praise of men. In the former case, a person desires praise because he is religious. Ironically, in the latter scenario where a person is ashamed of Jesus, the individual seeks the approval of others because he is not identified with Christ.

Public prayer need not fall into either trap. Is it not possible for someone who always gives thanks to God for his or her food in private to also pray quietly in a restaurant oblivious to a room full of strangers? Such a prayer would not be for show, but to God.

Since the motivations within the hearts of others are hidden from our view, it would seem inappropriate to flatly either condemn or approve how others approach praying in public. Be this as it may, I just wonder if some of my fellow Christians conveniently hide behind Matthew 6:5, because what they really are afraid of is being identified with Christ. That would be tragic.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They have two boys attending university.

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