"Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers"
What role does “sincerity” have in prayer? We know that hypocrisy is a poison that not only pollutes our prayers but causes a stench in the nostrils of God. This is why Jesus warned us against praying in order to be seen of men:
“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” (Matthew 6:5-6).
Jesus said of the scribes that they “devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40). How easy it is for us to “honor” God with our lips in prayer but for our hearts to be far from him (Ps. 145:18; Matt. 15:8-9; Heb. 10:22).
The background against which Jesus issues his warning in Matthew 6 provides additional insight into the sin of insincere and ostentatious prayer. D. A. Carson explains:
“In synagogue services public prayer was customarily led by a male member of the congregation who stood in front of the ark of the law and discharged this responsibility. A man could easily succumb to the temptation of praying up to his audience. . . . The acceptable cliches, the appropriate sentiments, the sonorous tones, the well-pitched fervency, all become tools to win approval, and perhaps to compete with the chap who led in prayer last week. Moreover, at times of public fasts, and perhaps at the time of the daily afternoon temple sacrifices, the trumpets would blow as a sign that prayer should be offered. Right where he was, in the street, a man would turn and face the temple to offer his prayer. This opportunity for ostentatious piety was really quite gratifying” (The Sermon on the Mount, 58).
Sincerity is elusive because it runs counter to our passion for recognition and applause. We love to be acknowledged as articulate, pious, and full of zeal. It would no doubt prove enlightening (and convicting) to hear ourselves in the assembly of God’s people as compared with our tone of voice when praying in secret. Lehman Strauss told of a man who, when he prayed, “sounded as if he had developed a steeple in his throat, or as if he were talking through a stained-glass window” (Sense and Non-Sense about Prayer, 14). This is not to denounce eloquence in general. But we must be careful lest in the limelight we cease praying to God and start performing for the people. This is the danger Charles Spurgeon had in mind as he warned his students about praying in public:
“Beware of having an eye to the auditors; beware of becoming rhetorical to please the listeners. Prayer must not be transformed into ‘an obligue sermon.’ It is little short of blasphemy to make devotion an occasion for display. Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers. In the presence of the Lord of hosts it ill becomes a sinner to parade the feathers and finery of tawdry speech with the view of winning applause from his fellow mortals. Hypocrites who dare to do this have their reward, but it is one to be dreaded. A heavy sentence of condemnation was passed upon a minister when it was flatteringly said that his prayer was the most eloquent ever offered to a Boston congregation. We may aim at exciting the yearnings and aspirations of those who hear us in prayer; but every word and thought must be God-ward, and only as far touching upon the people as may be needful to bring them and their wants before the Lord. Remember the people in your prayers, but do not mold your supplications to win their esteem: look up, look up with both eyes” (Lectures to My Students, 55-56).
“Oh for a living groan! One sigh of the soul has more power in it than half an hour’s recitation of pretty pious words. Oh for a sob from the soul, or a tear from the heart!” (quoted in Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon, 48).
May God guard us from praying for praise. May we never speak as if there were a steeple in our throat!