“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.
Therefore, Tim Keller rightly calls secret prayer “the infallible test of spiritual integrity” (Prayer, 23). This is not to deny that “secret” almsgiving and fasting are also tests of spiritual integrity. But simple love for God is not so easily discernible as the motivation for them. For example, philanthropy might impel secret almsgiving (which, of course, is nothing to sneeze at). And a desire for mere self-optimization might impel secret fasting (I’m going on a “technology fast” to kick a bad habit!).
In secret prayer, our love is most clearly manifested. It is the crucial and indispensable test of the wholeness, rather than double-mindedness and dividedness, of our souls before God.
Complications in Secret Prayer
Of course, secret praying might not always feel like it flows from much warmth of love for God. This lack of feeling, however, need not discourage us from the practice. Indeed, it provides us with a key supplication as we enter our prayer closets: confession of “internal, innate blindness, unbelief, doubts, [and] faintheartedness” (as the 1563 Palatinate Church Order puts it) and earnest petition that “the joy of . . . salvation” and “a willing spirit” might be restored (Psalm 51:12).
In the Christian life, we often go to private prayer not from a wellspring of warmth, but for one — yearning, seeking, and supplicating for “more love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee!” The psalmist acknowledges to God, “When I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you” (Psalm 73:21–22); but, though his flesh and even his heart may fail, he will continue to turn to God, who remains “the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (verse 26). It is a wise plan.
Having honestly admitted our lack, as is often necessary, what then might our prayers alone with God consist of? Knowing what to do and say in secret prayer, beyond confession and contrition and appeal for spiritual renewal, is a frequent complication. In this regard, let me offer a couple words of advice.
On the one hand, pray with your Bible open. As a sword is for enfolding in the hand, so the sword of the Spirit is especially for folded hands. The word of God helps, stimulates, and shapes our prayers, and this in numerous ways. As a basic starting point, it gives us words to pray. I think here especially of praying the Psalms. These prayers are a gift of the Spirit to help give us voice when entering our prayer closet. The Psalter can function like a divinely inspired form of speech therapy, training the underdeveloped muscles of our mouths and hearts in shapes and sounds and speech-acts they may not be used to making — particularly prayers of adoration and praise of the splendor of God’s glory (also, for example, prayers of lament, and intercession for widows and orphans).
A key assumption here is that we must be taught to pray. Healthy prayer is not merely automatic and instinctual. Well do the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). And wisely, with great compassion, does the Lord so teach them. But how he teaches them is telling. He doesn’t simply talk about praying and its nature, logic, and motivations. Jesus gives his disciples a specific form, actual words to pray, which we call the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2–4; Matthew 6:9–13). The Son of God’s prayer pedagogy is the same as that of his Father, whose Spirit inspired the Psalms: he gives words to pray to help his people get started.
On the other hand, silence in secret prayer isn’t to be avoided. “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools,” the Preacher asserts. Indeed, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:1–2). The prayer closet is first a place of listening in silence before we find the proper words to speak — silent meditation on the word, silent vulnerability before God.
To be sure, silences are awkward, which may be as much a reason as any for the “Gentile” propensity to prattle. Or maybe, at root, the “Gentiles” feel they need many words to secure the caring attention of the divine because they presume that, under normal conditions, they do not already have it. 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? Such fearful uncertainty is one of the greatest complications in secret prayer.
Comfort for Secret Prayer
Crucially, our Lord speaks of the Father who sees in secret. The emphasis is unmistakable and insistent: in Matthew 6:1–18, Jesus speaks of God only as Father, and that in a tenfold manner (verses 1, 4, 6 [2x], 8, 9, 14, 15, 18 [2x]). Jesus wants us to know that the God who sees us in secret is one who looks upon us with the relational orientation of a Father.
But can we know for sure that God is not only Lord and Judge, but Father? We can know it because the one who speaks of God in this way, the one who invites us with him (in him) to pray to “our Father” (Matthew 6:9; see also John 16:23, 26–27; 20:17), is himself, by eternal begetting, the Son of God who has ever known the joy of calling upon his Father. Jesus has come to reveal the Father’s identity to us. And Jesus has come to reveal the Father’s love for us.
According to the loving plan of God the Father, the Son was sent into the world to accomplish — through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension — a great exodus work of deliverance (Galatians 1:3–4). By faith in Christ, we are delivered from our sin and adopted as beloved children of God. Indeed, God’s own Spirit of adoption is poured out into our hearts. And what does this Spirit do? He leads us in the privilege and wonder of filial prayer: “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4–6). Because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as a traditional invitation to the Lord’s Prayer has it, we are bold to pray, “Our Father . . .”
In Christ, we need not be unsure of God’s posture toward us. We need not strategize about how — by our persuasion and prolixity — we might secure God’s attention and get into his good graces. We need not let uncertainty and fear block the way to the prayer closet. Rather, we can turn and turn again to the gospel, and know the love of the Father for us made flesh, and find welling up in return love for him. Which is as good a reason as any to find a secret, undistracted, hidden place to speak forth our thanks in love to the Father.