Judge My Relationship by the Way I Pray
Have you heard the idea that “listening to a person pray gives you insight into their relationship with God?” Now at first blush this seems a reasonable idea. We could presumably learn how someone views God: He is a genie in a bottle to which they ask with selfish motives or He is revered and approached humbly.
The problem with this idea is that at best it could make us more aware of how we talk to God but the possible problems are numerous: we become focused on listening to how others pray rather than joining them in prayer, we think of them as either more or less spiritual than we are, or we judge their motivation by their words without really knowing their hearts. These are but just a few potential problems.
As a personal example I offer myself up as evidence. I do not like praying out loud; in fact, I hate it; so, generally speaking (no pun intended), I tend to keep my spoken prayers very short and to the point. If you listened to how I pray you might think based on the premise above that either I don’t know God very well or my relationship with Him is very surface–level. You may be right in your judgement, but you couldn’t know for a certainty and what you wouldn’t know is the reason why I keep my prayers short, so your assessment of my relationship likely would be based on a false premise. My closest friends and family know this about me, and for the sake of this discussion I will reveal it to you; in the 3rd grade I developed a rather serious stutter (on a side note about how God works, although my stutter may seem like a bad thing, it helped me to become a great listener), which has gotten better over time and has become mostly unnoticeable in most situations, but in groups I am still fairly quiet and don’t say much even when I feel I have something to say. Because I don’t want to stutter, to get stuck on a word, or to not be able to speak past my last word, I generally pray speaking very short prayers. I love God, I have a relationship with God, but my public prayer won’t really be evidence of that.
I think back to when I first began reading the Psalms of David, whom the Bible tells us twice was a man after God’s own heart. Surely, if there is any barometer for the claim that “listening to a person pray gives you insight into their relationship with God,” it should be David. David sought after the heart of God, but David was also a murderer, a liar, and an adulterer. Yet David not only writes earnest psalms of praise and adoration but also psalms of anguish, distress, and even anger. The truth is that without the historical background of David’s life and circumstances, the best we could hope to achieve would be speculative claims about his relationship with God; in other words, a cold reading of certain Psalms could quite possibly lead us to the conclusion that David was closer to God than he actually was at the time or vice versa.
The pharisees knew and studied the Torah, prayed early and prayed often, and obeyed every aspect of the law, yet Jesus called them white washed tombs and hypocrites (Matthew 23:27). So while it is true we might be able to glean some information about what a person thinks about God or even knows about God by listening to that person’s prayer, we claim too much when we assert that we can obtain knowledge about the person’s relationship with God.
We, like David, go through times of joy and sorrow, contentment and need, and even love and anger; imagine I am angry with God, and although I have a great relationship with Him, I aloud and in public (due to circumstances no one knows anything about) were to pray, “Father, I cannot believe the way you are treating me; how could you put me through this? You have failed me again. I knew I couldn’t trust you.” How might someone who heard this prayer view my relationship with God? Would that person believe that I was a petulant child far from God or that I was close to God and honestly conveying my hurt and anger? An outside observer couldn’t possibly know, and any claim from him or her about my relationship with God would be nothing more than speculation.
But now let’s look at what the Bible says about spoken prayer and determine whether or not we can accurately measure the depth of someone’s relationship with God by means of spoken prayer.
Matthew 6:5-8, And 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. And 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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Ecclesiastes 5:2, 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.
1 Thessalonians 5:17, Pray without ceasing.
So who is right; well, everyone is right in a sense: we are to pray all the time and to use as many or as few words as needed; however, no one can judge our relationship with God based on hearing us pray as the Pharisees believed. Only God can judge the heart—only He knows just how close your are to Him. Why?
Jeremiah 17: 9-10, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
1 Samuel 16:7, But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
So whether your prayer is long or short or whether you choose to pray quietly or aloud, keep your focus on God that your prayer may be as David wrote in Psalm 141:2, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice,” caring not about what others may think and not judging others as they pray.