NEW: Yes, Jesus Told Us to Pray in Secret. But He Also Prayed with His Friends.
By Lynne M. Baab. Originally published in Christianity Today, July 8, 2021
A young Chinese woman with a rare chronic disease spent most of her days in darkness in the early 20th century. As Christiana Tsai lay in her dark bedroom, month after month, then year after year, she learned to pray. The story of her prayer journey, Queen of the Dark Chamber, profoundly shaped my faith as a young adult. From Christiana I learned about perseverance and passion in prayer. I learned that prayer shows love and support for people when we cannot be with them. I saw prayer as a high and joyful calling.
Christiana Tsai inspired me deeply, but her model was limited to only one setting for prayer—in isolation, away from life’s distractions and responsibilities. Ben Patterson describes the emphasis we often place on this kind of prayer: “I was raised in a tradition that believed the man alone on his knees in the closet is the pinnacle of great prayer—one person one-on-one with the Almighty.” A closet sounds like a strange place to pray unless one is familiar with Matthew 6:6. Jesus instructs his disciples to go to an inner room—literally a storage closet—shut the door, and “pray to your Father in private” (NLT).
Prayer alone is certainly one model of prayer in the Bible, but if we read the Bible only through the lens of praying in a closet, we miss much of the rich diversity possible in prayer.
Jesus’ words on prayer in Matthew 6, part of the Sermon on the Mount, are preceded by teaching about giving money and followed by instructions about fasting. For all three of these topics, Jesus mentions doing them “in secret” or “in private.” In our teaching and preaching about prayer, we have often elevated praying in secret above all other forms of prayer. As a result, we may have missed the benefits and power that come from praying with others, and we may not see the many biblical stories where people pray communally.
I began to see the language in Matthew 6 about financial giving, prayer, and fasting in a new light when I did interviews for my book, Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites. I interviewed dozens of people who fast, and I asked them for referrals to others who fast. Most of my American interviewees cited Matthew 6:16–18 as a foundational passage, and they talked about fasting alone in secret. Very few of the Americans I talked to had fasted with others. Two or three fasted with their small group, and one had fasted with family members to pray for a relative with cancer.
I reached out to Christians in Hong Kong, Colombia, and Uganda, and I had long email exchanges with all of them. All of them told me they fast with their congregations. None of them, in fact, fast alone. I brought up Matthew 6, and all of them said that the point of the passage isn’t to emphasize fasting alone. The main point, they said, can be found in Matthew 6:1, the introduction to the material on generosity, prayer and fasting: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Don’t give money, pray, or fast, these interviewees said, for the purpose of impressing others.
All of them said that fasting alone is difficult. They were sure God had intended that we support each other as we fast and pray. One of them said, “Fasting alone is so hard. God doesn’t want us to have to work that hard to draw near to him.”
I have come to believe that their words apply to prayer just as much as to fasting. In many instances, praying with others is much easier than praying alone. When we pray with others, we pray longer. We pray for a wider variety of needs as our companions bring up new issues or perspectives. We can pray thankfulness prayers much longer with others because they see God’s beauty in places we haven’t observed, so we find ourselves seeing more of God’s gifts. We may feel led to confess our sins in new areas when we hear others confess.
The needs of the world—and the needs among my family members and friends—sometimes seem so overwhelming. When we pray intercessory or lament prayers with others, we’re not alone in the sadness we feel. As we pray with others, together we affirm that God is good, Jesus walks with us in our sorrow, and the Holy Spirit is guiding and encouraging us.
Scripture presents a variety of models for prayer. While praying and fasting alone, Jesus confronts Satan in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11). Jesus slips out early in the morning to spend time with his Father (Mark 1:35–39). While many teachers point to these examples of prayer, we may forget that Jesus prays his eloquent prayer in John 17 in the presence of his disciples. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wrestles with his destiny alone in prayer, but only after he asks for the companionship of his friends (Matt. 26:36–46). Jesus, the Son of God, asks for the support of his friends in an intense time of prayer.
Numerous additional instances in the Bible show groups of people praying together. David and his men mourn together after the death of Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:11–27). Solomon prays a long prayer in the presence of the people of Israel when the temple was dedicated (1 Kings 8:22–61). When Daniel is asked to interpret the king’s dream, he goes home to his three friends and asks them “plead for mercy from the God of heaven” to help him accurately interpret the king’s dream (Daniel 2:17–18).
One of my favorite stories about the balance of communal prayer and taking action comes in Nehemiah 4. The people of Israel, newly returned from exile, are facing obstacles in rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. Nehemiah reports, “We prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat” (v. 9). Nehemiah’s use of “we” implies that, like guarding the city, the prayer effort was communal.
Acts 13:1–3 describes a gathering of Jesus followers in Antioch who were worshiping and fasting when the Holy Spirit directed them to commission Paul and Barnabas to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. The Christians in Antioch prayed together for this new mission for their friends, a mission that would shape the church for generations to come. Acts describes at least 11 other instances when Christians prayed together in pairs or groups. See Acts 4:24–30, 12:12, and 16:25 for particularly vivid examples.
I have been in a prayer support group for more than 20 years. During the pandemic, our bi-weekly meetings shifted to Zoom, but our pattern remains the same. After sharing what’s on our mind, both praises and needs, the five of us begin our time with thanksgiving prayers. Mostly we thank God for the good things happening in each other’s lives, and I experience such joy as I express gratitude for God’s gifts to these friends. Our thankfulness prayers go on much longer than any thankfulness prayer time I have ever experienced alone.
In the group, our intercessory prayers focus mostly on each other’s needs. I am often fascinated when I hear the components of each urgent situation that other members of the group choose to pray for.
New groups praying for racial justice and other societal needs have sprung up in the tumultuous months of 2020 and 2021. Zoom prayer meetings for missionaries and ministries to people in need have continued yearslong traditions of praying together for Christian participation in God’s work in our world. God puts us in communities of believers because all of us find following Jesus on our own challenging in one way or another.
Throughout history, the Psalms have been used in corporate worship settings as well as in prayer alone. The Psalms, often called “the prayer book of the Bible,” are one more indicator that God calls us to pray in many diverse ways. Some of that prayer will be in our “prayer closets” or dark bedrooms, and some prayer will be with others in pairs or groups. Praise God that we are invited to draw near with all we are and all we have.
For more on communal prayer check out my book, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation, which has a chapter on contemplative prayer in groups, as well as a chapters on nurturing thankfulness prayers in groups and fasting in groups.
To stimulate creative thoughts about prayer, here's the first post in a series of blog posts about creativity in prayer.