Written by Daniel J. Brendsel |
Wednesday, January 31, 2024
Without confidence in one’s standing before God, the solitary silence can be downright terrifying. For there I am alone with my God and Lord and Judge. And how can the real me, which I try so hard to hide, feel anything but shame and terror before One who sees in secret?
“The truth about a man lies first and foremost in what he hides.” So wrote the French novelist, art critic, and statesman André Malraux in 1967, in a weighty diagnosis of the human predicament (Anti-Memoirs, 5). Malraux was on to something. We may broadcast what we want to be known for, but we hide what we are.
We might think first of the dark side of this insight. We may keep the skeletons safely in the closet, our secret sins and hidden idolatries, thinking to ourselves, “If others knew who I really am, they’d despise me.” We well know that we are what we hide.
But there’s a positive side to the insight as well, and our Lord may be said to commend it. Jesus encourages us to hide, in a manner, what’s closest to our hearts: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). We face a common and strong temptation to do what we do to receive the praise and admiration of people. The appearance of righteousness can easily become more important to us than righteousness itself. But true righteousness, we might say, isn’t merely something we show, but also and especially something we hide. Thus arises Jesus’s exhortation to practice righteousness—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—“in secret” (Matthew 6:2–18).
Call to Secret Prayer
Jesus’s words and warnings about almsgiving, prayer, and fasting clearly overlap. We are to take care lest our motivation for them is the ephemeral reward of others’ esteem (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). But prayer seems to be central among these three, and not only because it’s sandwiched in the middle. For one thing, Jesus spends twice as much time addressing prayer as he does almsgiving and fasting combined. For another, when it comes to prayer in the middle, Jesus warns against a second problematic motivation in addition to seeking others’ admiration.
“When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (verse 7). At root, it seems, “the Gentiles” pray to acquire things of want and felt need, thinking prayer to be simply a means to that end. But additionally, they presume that the divine needs goading to deliver the goods. So, they heap up many words—perhaps thinking that God needs to be informed of our grocery list of needs, or that long-winded eloquence may impress him to act, or that abundant articulation of “truth” is required to pass a threshold.
Jesus blocks off all such wrong ways at the trailhead: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (verse 8). Apparently, we don’t need to pray long to inform God. Neither are long prayers needed to butter God up for generosity and care that he isn’t already inclined toward. For the Father’s knowledge of our need signals his intention to provide for us his children, whom he loves more than he loves larks and lilies (Matthew 6:25–34), and to whom he would never dream of giving rocks or serpents in response to prayer (Matthew 7:7–11).
Secret prayer doesn’t secure the loving orientation of the Father toward us. In Jesus’s outlook, the Father’s loving attention and wise intention to meet our truest needs precede our praying and invite it. We don’t need to enter the prayer closet anxiously angling after our good.
Centrality of Secret Prayer
If prayer isn’t best thought of as merely an effort to get what we desire or need, and if it’s to be done in secret where no one else is looking, then what motivates it? Is it not simple love for and desire to commune with the Father who sees in secret?
We are what we hide because what we do in hiddenness—in secret, in the closet, when no one else is looking—is what we love. And we are what we love.