Read Psalm 62:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Matthew 6:6
In any study of the subject of the believers' prayers we must distinguish private from public prayers. Sometimes the difference between the two is not sufficiently recognized. If we do not give adequate attention to the difference between these two forms of prayer, we can make some serious mistakes on our theology of prayer. The private, personal prayers of the individual are well-known to every believer because he simply would not be a believer if he did not pray. Here we do not encounter the difficulties which many people have in regard to public prayer. Many find it difficult to pray when other people are listening but find it very easy and natural to have the proper communion with their God in their own private devotions.
Examples of Private Prayer
The Bible speaks more often of public prayers than of private personal prayers. This should not surprise us. The personal prayers are not public and therefore do not come to light the way the others do. Although the word "to pray" is used most often of public prayers in the Scriptures, those Scriptures contain more material on our private, personal prayers than we often assume. It is, of course, difficult to find examples of private prayer although the Psalms offer some. Recalling his past experiences, David often shows us the type of prayer he prayed to his God while he was in distress. He even does that concerning the confession of his sins, AFTER he has experienced the forgiveness of God! The Psalms referred to in a previous lesson, such as Psalms 32, 51, and 130 give us examples of the way in which he was led to make confession and even give us the content of that confession. He had found forgiveness — now let all his fellow-believers experience with him the way to the acceptance of the penitent by the God of mercy and justice.
A Heart's Outpouring
There is a difference between confessions of sin which are appropriate in private and public prayers. Although in our public prayers we also ask for the forgiveness of our sins, we cannot deal as specifically with sins as we must do in our private prayers. Then we are to mention the sins by name. Then we are "to pour out our hearts" says the Psalmist in Psalm 62:8. What is contained in the phrase "pour out your heart before Him"? In the first place it must be seen in the context of this particular Psalm. The Psalmist has experienced various difficulties. There was always the danger that he would indeed be moved from his place, that he would fall. But, God is faithful and able to give complete salvation regardless of his difficulties. He has entrusted himself into the hands of this God. He now counsels all the people to do the same thing. Let them pour out their heart to Him. They must consider that their persecutors must be properly weighed and they will then discover that these "opponents" are lighter than air! There is no substance to them. God's people often become afraid of those who certainly cannot do them harm because they are no match for the mighty One of Jacob!
To pour out our hearts also means that we keep nothing back. We entrust ourselves and all that is in our hearts to the living God. In the final analysis, there are very few before whom we are able to pour out our hearts. Husband and wife can do this. David and Jonathan could do this. Yet, how few are they whom we would entrust with the deepest needs and secrets of our hearts? Feel free, says the Psalmist, to pour out your heart to your God! This is characteristically a very private prayer. We do not pour out our hearts to everyone nor do we do it in public. This is a very intimate act. What a blessing it is for God's people to have Someone to whom they may go in this way! What a safety valve this is for them. They are then never alone. They are not on their own either. I belong to Him and can therefore pour out my heart to Him.
Jesus also speaks of our private prayer just before He teaches the Lord's Prayer to His disciples. There was a great temptation in that day, exemplified by the Pharisees, to make a great "show" of prayers. They would stand on street corners — the busier the place the better — to show men how pious they were! Don't you do that, says Jesus. When you pray, go into your inner chamber, shut the door, and your father who sees in secret will reward you. He will hear you. That is the proper place for our private, personal prayers. True prayer is a very private matter and is not intended for the eyes and ears of others. It is intended only for the ears of God. In it we can indeed "pour out our hearts." This is the kind of a place we need for that spiritual communion which the believing soul craves. The believer must have fellowship with his God. Here, in true prayer, in the deepest devotion, he finds the rest which he seeks.
This private prayer is not only for the purpose of making true confession of our sins, though this is a very important item, but it is also for the purpose of intercession in a way that is not always proper in public prayers. When we come to our God alone we mention each member of the family. We can there not only pray for God's blessing on each one, but we can go into detail. We can also plead with our God on His covenant promises in these private prayers. How can we single out one of the children at the dinner table and ask for a very special measure of His grace to turn this child to the only true God? The subject might be humiliated if this were done in public. Christ spent long periods of time in prayer alone. He prayed for His disciples. Before He chose the twelve, He spent an entire night in prayer. Although we can only guess, do you think we would miss the mark very far if we concluded that a large part of that night's prayer was devoted to Judas? Must He take the enemy right into His own camp? The answer is: yes! But, why Father? Nevertheless, Thy will be done!
This private prayer is very important for the healthy spiritual life of God's people. After all, they have to live on that communion with Him. The line which binds them to their God must never be broken. The prayer-life of the individual believer determines his spiritual welfare. You have not because you ask not, says James. Is it even too much to require you to ask for what you need? The soul which is spiritually alive will naturally gravitate toward the Source of his spiritual life and to the One from Whom all good comes. Private, personal prayer is, therefore, the most natural thing in the world for the child of God.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 the Apostle urges the church of Thessalonica to "pray without ceasing." This command comes in the midst of several which he gives to the church as he is coming to the close of this letter. There is much that he has to teach them, but there is no time. He has been in this church for only a very brief period of time and later writes two small epistles to this church. He is very abrupt in his writing in the last chapter of this epistle. Each one of the brief commands he gives contains a world of thought. Let these believers think upon these things in the days to come. Paul is not able to elaborate on any one of these principles now — he just states them.
When he tells them to pray "without ceasing" we must remember that he is here speaking of private prayers. He is speaking of informal prayers. This must be understood clearly or we come to a real misunderstanding of the text. If we are to pray without ceasing and these would be the public, formal prayers, we would go contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures in many place. To put it bluntly: there is more to do in this life than pray! We must always keep the work to which we are called and our individual prayer life in proper balance.
When so understood this becomes a maxim which we naturally follow. The true believer prays while he works. He prays all the time. His whole life is a prayer. Then praying without ceasing no longer sounds strange. How many prayers does not the believer utter before his God every day? He lives with his God as he is not able to live with any human being. He lives in constant communion with his God. That communion requires his constant prayer. That communion also requires that he knows the word which his God has spoken to him.
About private, personal prayer we do not feel embarrassed. One does not have to be fluent of speech to pray properly this private prayer before his God. It is necessary for the soul-life of every believer and no one is able to do it for you! This kind of prayer we have to learn. It is learned only in the school of God's word. There we find what is necessary for us and we also learn what is acceptable to Him. When Christ taught His disciples, and therewith also us, to pray, He did not teach them a prayer to repeat, first of all, but how to come into the presence of the living God and there pour out our hearts!
If the prayer-life of a believer is healthy, his spiritual life will prosper, and if it is not healthy, his spiritual life finally withers and dies. But, how can we tell if it is healthy? By evaluating it according to the word. Only three texts were placed at the beginning of this lesson but this number could be increased greatly. If we but learn to pour out our hearts to God; to go into our inner chamber and shut the door; and pray at all times, the God who sees in secret will reward us openly. It will become apparent! Our faith and our prayers are the answers to the promises He has given us in His word.
Questions for Discussion:
- Do you think it is valuable for us to teach our children "a prayer" so that they will learn "to pray"?
- What kind of relationship are we to have with our God to permit us to pour out our hearts before Him?
- Can we sin in prayer? How? Is this considered sufficiently in our day?
- Do you think the injunction of Paul to "pray without ceasing" is commonly obeyed by God's people today?
- Does our private, personal prayer life affect our public prayers? If so, how?
- Are we, on the whole, as much interested in our communion with God as we are in communion with loved ones? Do you think we can really apply the words of Psalm 73:25 to ourselves?