If you have attended BBC for any significant amount of time, you will have observed our emphasis on corporate prayer. This emphasis is warranted, given the repeated examples and exhortations in the Bible for Christians and churches to pray together.
But corporate prayer is not the only form of prayer taught in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took time to encourage his disciples to give time to secret prayer. Warning them to not pray ostentatiously (like the Jewish religious leaders) or unthinkingly (like unbelievers), he urged them to instead “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).
As we reflect on these words, it is helpful to consider that secret prayer is a Christian duty as much as corporate prayer. Somehow, we innately know this, because few things prick our conscience like personal prayerlessness. But given the heavy emphasis that we place at BBC on corporate prayer, it might be helpful to consider, from Scripture, some of the biblical reasons that we should not neglect secret prayer. Here are six encouragements from Scripture to give yourself to secret prayer.
First, in secret prayer, we stand in a long line of saints of old who have given themselves to this discipline. Moses spent forty days and nights in solitude with God (Exodus 34:28). Abraham wrestled with God in secret prayer (Genesis 18:22–32) and returned the next day (Genesis 19:27). We see him once again at private prayer in Genesis 21:33. Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps (Genesis 24:63) and Jacob continued this pattern (Genesis 32:24–28). David (Psalm 55:16–17) and Daniel (Daniel 6:10) both spent time alone with God in prayer. The example of the saints of Scripture is consistent.
Second, to pray in secret is to emulate Christ. He frequently spent time alone in prayer (Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 5:16; 612; etc.). If we are called to Christlikeness, surely it means that we must give ourselves, as he did, to secret prayer.
Third, as Jesus highlighted here, secret prayer is a helpful discipline to separate sincerity from hypocrisy. Jesus warned that religious people display their hypocrisy by praying eloquently for the applause of people, while irreligious people display their hypocrisy by trying to manipulate God with magical formulas with no real relationship with him. For Jesus, the essence of prayer was relationship with God, and genuine, love-driven relationship is often seen more in secret than in public.
Fourth, in secret prayer, we have opportunity to unburden ourselves before God in a way that we might hesitate to do in public. We can be honest about our sorrows, burdens, and sins in a way that might be inappropriate in public. David retreated to a cave before pouring out his complaint to God (Psalm 142:2; see superscription), a lesson we do well to learn from him.
Fifth, Jesus both assumed that his people will pray in secret and promised to openly reward those who do so. He did not say “if you pray” but “when you pray,” thereby assuming that this is an activity in which Christians will involve themselves. (Significantly, “you” in this section is in the second person singular rather than plural.) And to those who give themselves to this secret discipline, he promised, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Sixth, this life is all the opportunity we will have for secret prayer. Prayer is the means by which we commune with God in the present, but in the eternal state, when we see him face to face, there will be no more need to pray by faith, for we will see him as he is. Since this life is the only life we have to give to this discipline, let us give ourselves wholeheartedly to it.
Reflecting on the Lord’s command to enter our closet, Puritan Thomas Brooks concluded, “In this text you have a positive precept for every Christian to pray alone…. The command in the text sends us as well to the closet as to the church; and he is a real hypocrite that chooses the one and neglects the other; for thereby he tells the world he cares for neither.” May secret prayer guard us from hypocrisy.