What We Believe

Learning to Pray in Secret

Douglas B. Clawson

New Horizons: June 2021


Also in this issue

Prayer: Our Highest Privilege

Leading in Public Prayer

Jesus is our God and Lord and King. He is also our Savior, our brother, and our friend. He is with us, and we are with him, every moment of every day. There is not a need that he does not know or a tear that he does not see. We are to have humility and reverence before him whose is the kingdom and the power and the glory—absolutely. But he also invites us to call God our Father. He lives to pray for us (Heb. 7:25) as he sits at the right hand of the Father, and he tells us that we should pray to him without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17).

When praying in secret, we need to remember all that we have been taught about prayer, but, most of all, we need to just talk to God. We need to know that we can pour out our hearts to him. We need to remember that he is our best friend and only hope and that we can tell him everything and anything. Yes, he already knows it, but we can say it anyway. We can say it because he hears and listens to us for the sake of Jesus.

We may be ceaselessly calling, texting, and posting on our phones. Even better than connecting with friends is talking to Christ, our best friend, in secret, each day (keeping in mind who Jesus is and what we owe him). Just as he speaks to us by his Spirit through his Word anytime that we hear it, read it, or think about it, so we should speak to him through his Spirit in prayer, any time and about everything. 

Examples of Prayer

Some experiences change how we conceive of prayer. I remember once sharing a room with Pastor Lawrence Eyres for a presbytery meeting. As I walked into the room following my shower, I saw that he was praying, not comfortably seated in a chair, but on his knees. This spiritual father was forty-four years my senior and the unintended consequence of his private devotions left an impression that I will not forget.

On another occasion, I ran into Pastor Abe Ediger following a presentation at the church where he regularly worshiped. As we spoke in the parking lot, he told me with obvious deep regret how his hearing loss kept him from serving the church in ways that he once had. But, with equal intensity and gladness, he told me that he was now able to spend more time in prayer than he had ever been able to before. So, here was another spiritual father, thirty-six years my senior, who, through a casual conversation in a parking lot, left another impression that I have not forgotten. 

“What is prayer?” the Shorter Catechism asks in Question 98. “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”

But is there more to know that could help us?

“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”

We know that Jesus prayed alone often and for long periods of time. It is in the context of the great crowds that came to hear him and be healed by him that we read that Jesus went out to desolate places and up mountains to pray (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; Mark 6:46). He prayed all night on a mountain before choosing the disciples whom he made apostles (Luke 6:12). Later, it was while praying on a mountain with three of those disciples that he was transfigured (Luke 9:28).

Since these earlier occasions of Jesus’s prayers occur while he was by himself (or with only a couple of disciples, as in Luke 9), there is probably something special to note in the fact that, in Luke 11:1, the disciples were witness to his prayer. It was after Jesus had finished praying that the disciples asked him to teach them to pray, just as John had taught his disciples.

It cannot be that these men did not know how to pray. While we aren’t explicitly told anything about their worship, the requirement of attending the annual feasts and their probable synagogue attendance mean that they had almost certainly heard public prayer. We know that they knew a lot about God’s Word—it was because of their knowledge of the Scriptures that, on their first meeting with Jesus, they confessed that he was the One written about by Moses and the Prophets, the Christ and Son of God (John 1:35–51). That knowledge of the Scriptures and especially of the Psalms gave them many examples of prayers. And early in his public ministry, Jesus had taught some things about prayer; for example, he taught them that they should pray for those who persecute them (Matt. 5:44).

The disciples knew that Jesus prayed. They knew that John had taught his disciples to pray. And they surely knew many prayers found in Scripture. But on that occasion of being near Jesus when he prayed, perhaps sometime in the second year of his public ministry, there was something about his prayer that made them ask: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

So, he taught them the words that have become so familiar to us that we can practically recite them without thinking. It is a simple prayer. It is so simple that, considering the amount of time Jesus spent in prayer, it must have been only an outline.

As is summarized in our catechism, this prayer taught them that we should come to our Father with reverence and confidence, praying with and for others. It taught them that we should glorify God in all things, and it taught them to pray that God’s kingdom would grow and Satan’s kingdom be destroyed. It taught them to ask that we would know, obey, and submit to God’s will in all things. It taught them to look to and ask that God would provide for our needs and to ask that we would be forgiven for our sins and given a heart to forgive others. It taught them to ask that God would keep us from being tempted and deliver us when we are tempted, and that all praise and all glory are owed to him. Along with the prayer, he encouraged them to pray with faith in the God who, like a good father, knows our needs before we ask, provides for our needs, gives us the Holy Spirit, and forgives us when we forgive others.

Later, in his parables, the disciples would learn that when they pray, they should not lose heart like the widow (Luke 18:1) and that they should pray repentantly and humbly like the tax collector (Luke 18:13–14). Jesus also taught them that they should not be like the hypocrites whose public prayers in the synagogue and on street corners were meant to draw attention to themselves, or like the Gentiles who repeat empty phrases. Like their giving and their fasting, their praying was to be in secret behind a closed door.

Christ’s Intimacy with the Father

All of us have the example of the prayers found in the Old and New Testaments. All of us have the instructions of Jesus. And some of us have had many examples of hearing others pray. Maybe our pastor or parent or teacher has used a prayer from a prayer book or devotional or other carefully composed prayer. In other instances, the prayers we have heard may have been extemporaneous and drawn from Scripture, with praise, thanksgiving, confession of sin, and a list of prayer requests. However, in each of those cases, even when there is a correct desire and effort to join our heart and mind with the person praying, there can be a feeling that “those are not words that I would use when praying in secret.”

The disciples had heard and knew of many more prayers than most young believers, and still, after Jesus finished praying, they asked him to teach them how to pray.

So, what was there about Jesus’s unrecorded prayer in Luke 11:1 that made men who had many other examples ask, “Lord, teach us to pray”?

We have a few examples of Jesus’s prayers. There is John 11, when he prays for the raising of Lazarus. There is John 17, when he prays about the glory that he has brought to the Father, and for those the Father has given to him. And there is the prayer that he prayed in the garden before his arrest.

What did the disciples hear in Christ’s prayers? If we consider those examples—apart from their divine character, which we may never share—we see a trust, a confidence, an intimacy, which all of us should want when we pray. In John 11 and 17, Jesus’s eyes are turned to heaven, but he is praying to a Father whom he knows to be very near because the Father loves him and is listening to his every word.

You, too, can trust him, because he has done everything for your salvation. You, too, can have confidence in him, because he has promised to complete his work in you. You, too, can know that you are close to him, and he to you, because his Spirit lives inside you.

Therefore, when you pray in secret, with humility and reverence, you can pray with trust, confidence, and intimacy, because in Christ your Father loves you and is listening to your every word.   

The author is associate general secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions. New Horizons, June 2021.

New Horizons: June 2021


Also in this issue

Prayer: Our Highest Privilege

Leading in Public Prayer

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