The Power and Privilege of God’s Children
Now is the time to take a fresh look at your private prayer life and dream about a tweak or two you could make in the coming days. Typically the best way to grow and make headway is not a total overhaul, but identifying one or a couple small changes that will pay dividends over time.
Or maybe you have little-to-no real private prayer life (which might be as common among professing Christians as it’s ever been), and you really need to start from scratch. You may feel first-hand the weight of Francis Chan’s alarm, “My biggest concern for this generation is your inability to focus, especially in prayer.” Perhaps it’s true of you, and you’re ready for change.
Whether you’re in need of a little self-evaluation, or learning as a beginner, I’d like to offer a few practical flashpoints on private prayer. But let’s start with why private prayer, or “closet prayer,” is so important in the first place.
Praying “in the Closet”
“Closet prayer” gets its name from Jesus’s famous “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5–8. The context is Jesus’s instructions for not “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1).
When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5–6)
Just as praying in earshot of others had its immanent rewards in first-century Judaism, so also it does in our twenty-first-century church communities, whether it’s in church or small group or just at the table with friends and family. It can be easy to slide into impressing others as the driving motivation for our praying with others, whether its our length, tone, topic, or jargon, all carefully chosen to produce certain effects in our human hearers alone.
It’s a tough line to walk, because we must pray publicly — in church and in our homes and elsewhere — and public prayer should take into account that others are listening; it should have others in mind. But the danger lurks of sidelining God and shifting our focus to making ourselves look impressive.
Test of Authenticity
But “closet prayer” offers a test of authenticity for our public praying. As Tim Keller comments on Matthew 6:5–6,
The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social expectations, or perhaps by the anxiety caused by troubling circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God as Father, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. They pursue it even during times of spiritual dryness, when there is no social or experiential payoff. (Prayer, 23)
Private prayer is an important test of whether we are real.
“The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life.”
Remedy for Inadequacy
But private prayer is not just a test of our trueness, but also an ongoing remedy for our inadequacies and the lack of desire we often feel for God. Prayer, says John Piper, is “not only the measure of our hearts, revealing what we really desire, it is also the indispensible remedy for our hearts when we do not desire God the way we ought” (When I Don’t Desire God, 153).
Private prayer shows who we really are spiritually and is essential in healing the many places we find ourselves broken, needy, lacking, and rebellious.
Context for Relationship
Also, as Keller notes, prayer is essential for “a genuinely lived relationship with God as Father.” This is the heart of prayer — not getting things from God, but getting God. Prayer is where we speak back to God, in response to his word to us, and experience what it means to enjoy him as an end in himself, not just a means to our petitions. In prayer, we enjoy the gift of having God’s ear and discover for ourselves that we are not just servants, but friends (John 15:15). We are not just hearers of his word, but his own children who have his heart (Romans 8:15–16; Galatians 4:6–7). He wants to hear from us. Such is the power and privilege of prayer.
Here’s where we see why Jesus practiced so well what he preached about prayer and finding a “closet.” He had no inadequacies to make up for, and no doubts about his trueness, but he desperately desired fellowship with his Father. And so, again and again, he prayed alone. “After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. . . . [H]e was there alone” (Matthew 14:23; also Mark 6:46). Not just once, but as a regular habit, he “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). “Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Before selecting his twelve disciples, “he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). Even in Gethsemane, three times he “went away and prayed” (Matthew 26:36, 42, 44; also Mark 14:32–42). From the beginning of his ministry to the eve of Good Friday, he made the practice of private prayer as an essential part of his relationship with the Father.
And so, it is difficult to overstate the place of private prayer. It is, in many ways, the measure of who we are spiritually. How we pray, says J.I. Packer, “is as important a question as we can ever face.”
Five Suggestions for Secret Prayer
That private prayer is important, even essential, for the Christian is clear. But how we go about private prayer is gloriously open for our various experiences and routines and patterns, in the differing seasons of our lives. As you evaluate (or begin) your own rhythms and practices, here are five suggestions for enriching private prayer.
1. Create your closet.
Find your regular place for private prayer, and if you can’t locate a readymade spot, make one. It may simply be a clear desk, or someplace you can kneel. Many have found that beside the bed proves more fruitful than laying in bed. Maybe you can find an actual closet, or nook under the stairs, with enough space to sit or kneel, and enough light to read and even write. It will help you be regular in private prayer to have your go-to spot.
2. Begin with Bible.
Because prayer is a conversation we didn’t start, but a response to God’s initiation and speaking to us in his word, many of us have learned, with George Mueller, to start with the Scriptures. Mueller says that for ten years, he began each day with an immediate attempt at fervent and extended prayer, only to eventually learn how much richer and focused his prayers were when they came in response to God’s word.
From then on, Mueller began with a brief prayer for God’s help as he read, then he went first to the Bible, and would open his ear to God in his word, by meditating on the Scriptures, then transition, through the discipline of meditation, into his season of daily private prayer.
3. Adore, confess, thank, ask.
After reading and meditating on the Bible, and before opening the gates to “free prayer” — voicing whatever is on our hearts — it can help to have some form ready at hand. William Law counseled that morning devotions “have something fixed and something at liberty.” So also with private prayer.
Martin Luther recommended praying through the form of the Lord’s Prayer with fresh wording each day. One time-tested form is ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication. First, adore God with praise for the truth revealed in your reading of and meditation on the Scriptures, then confess your own sins and failings and foibles, then give thanks for his grace and mercy, and finally supplicate — petition him, ask him — for requests for yourself, your family, your church, and more.
4. Divulge your desires — and develop them.
“Few things are as worthy of our attention and investment as the privilege and power of private prayer.”
First, something fixed; now, something at liberty. This is “free prayer,” where we pray our hearts, and what burdens and anxieties are on us that day and in that season of life. In private prayer, we are our most honest with God and with ourselves. Express your heart to your Father. He knows it already, and he wants to hear it from you. This is an unspeakable privilege.
But prayer to God is not only the place for divulging our heart, but also developing our desires. There is power. Prayer changes our hearts like nothing else. Perhaps especially when we follow the prayers of the Bible, in the psalms and from the apostle (as in Ephesians 1:17–21; 3:16–19; Philippians 1:9–11; Colossians 1:9–12) and more, as guides for the shaping and expressing of our desires toward God.
5. Keep it fresh.
Change it up for a new year, or a new month, or in a new season of life. Regularly, or just on occasion, write out prayers with focus and care (a valuable facet of the discipline of journaling), or sharpen your affections in prayer with fasting, or take a break from the chaos of life with some special retreat for silence and solitude.
Few things are as worthy of our attention and investment as the privilege and power of private prayer.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.