The first time I attended a National Day of Prayer in the late 1990s, I was a 13-year-old Catholic school boy in the Portland, Ore., suburbs, one of many Christians gathering around the country on football fields, in gyms and churches asking God for help. I remember the calls for God “to take our country back” and for us to become “prayer warriors.” Images remained with me of the stage, high-end lighting and zealous speakers — it felt to me more like a political rally than a prayer meeting.
This year, the main National Day of Prayer event will be Washington, D.C., and will include live music, a theme of “Wake up America” and a live stream you can watch from your couch. There are plenty of opportunities to watch people pray, and to talk about it.
But all this fanfare around public prayer makes me a little hesitant.
Whenever we Christians are making other people very aware we are praying, I think about Jesus’ simple teaching to us about prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount, he tells us, “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.” Instead, Jesus tells us to go into a room alone, shut the door, and “pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you in secret.”
The original King James Bible replaces translates the word “room” to “closet.” Maybe Jesus wants Christians to keep prayer in the closet.
The greatest rewards, we are told, will come “in secret.” I must confess we Christians are not always great at this. We don’t like the secret reward because then no one will know about it. We like to let people know what we’re praying so they can know to change their ways. But prayer is not primarily about making others change—the nation, politicians, culture, or society—it is about us changing when we talk to the living God. Prayer transforms both the one praying and potentially but not always the things they are praying for.
But the grandstanding prayer warriors “have received their reward,” Jesus says. And this helps me know why we like these large events. We want to receive the immediate reward. We want people to see our prayers, hear our prayers, and applaud our prayers—and he says we actually can have that if we want it.
It just may be at the expense of God hearing us and rewarding us.
What would it look like for Christians to obey this simple command of Jesus not just on the National Day of Prayer, but every day? What if instead of attending large events where we listened to others pray, we started every morning by going into a room in our house, shutting the door, and asking God for whatever we needed in total isolation?
Practicing prayer like this would not stray us from our Christian tradition, but connect us to it. In his book “Water from a Deep Well,” theologian Gerry Sittser observed, “Many famous bishops who served the church during the fourth and fifth centuries…spent considerable time in isolation…even after they assumed church office.”
The early Church Fathers and Christian mystics throughout the centuries valued solitude—it remains one of the most common, historical Christian practices. Early Christian leaders were known for being quiet and alone; 21st Century Christians are known for being a loud mob.
Prayer language in the Bible is not so much about Christians taking ground and advancing, but God himself advancing and taking ground as we retreat into prayer, obedience and dependence. We cannot confuse prayer with evangelism. Christians are called to live quiet, private lives of prayer that lead to a unique boldness, but the order in this is essential. God’s work and advances will surprise us as it will often be different from our own vision.
If America really needs repentance, reverence, and humility, as the National Day of Prayer Task Force claims, let us lead the way. We’re Americans and we, apparently, could use some humility. We’ll take the route of the Church Fathers by retreating from the show, heading back home, shutting the door, looking to heaven, and waiting for the greater reward.
Chris Nye is a pastor and writer living in Portland, Oregon with his wife Ali, and is the author of “Distant God: Why He Feels Far Away…and What We Can Do About It.” Connect with him on Twitter: @chrisnye