“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Matthew 6.6From David King
Reasonably regularly you might hear someone say, “Of course the Bible is full of contradictions and inconsistencies.” As a Christian, this can leave us feeling a bit uncertain, lacking in confidence and afraid to speak further of our faith. A good reply is always, “Which specific inconsistencies were you thinking of?” If they come up with a reply, which in my experience is quite rare, you then have an opportunity to go away and talk to someone and together work through their example.
One interesting feature of the Bible though, is that a single writer or speaker can seem to contradict themselves within a small space of text. When that happens, it is not because they are stupid and do not see the inconsistency, but that we are missing the point of what they say in each place.
Last Sunday’s passage is just such an example. Jesus tells his disciples to pray in secret, but within two sentences, he has taught them to pray, “Our Father”. So, which is it? Similarly, Jesus tells his disciples to give in such a way that their right hand doesn’t know what their left hand is doing in 6.3, but in 5.16 he encourages us to do our good deeds before the unbeliever so that they will glorify God.
The starting point here is that Jesus cannot be contradicting himself. For the Christian that is obvious. But even for the inquirer or the sceptic, it should be clear. These are visible things that Jesus would have seen around him: giving and praying. It’s not a contradiction you could make without being aware of it. (It is worth saying at this point that if a person doesn’t recognise this, it is a good indicator that their concern is not really about the possibility of Scripture contradicting itself. In which case you might be wise to hold on to your pearls – Matthew 7.6)
In fact, it is the apparent contradiction here, as so often in the Bible, which helps us to get to the heart of what Jesus is saying. Jesus’ concern here is not the location in which prayer and giving happens. No, Jesus’ real concern is the heart of the person who is giving and the audience on which their gaze is focused. Is the real focus of the Christian, the Father and His glory, or other people and the Christian’s glory? If you like, Jesus isn’t concerned about the times when we give and pray and it is seen by others, but the times when we give and pray in order to be seen by others.
So, it can be right to pray together out loud (I am hugely grateful to those who lead our prayers and to those who turn up to our prayer meetings). In fact, it is something which as a church we need to get better at, and is commanded by the Lord. It can also be right to give publicly (do tell others how much people at St Patrick’s have given to CentreForward), but we need to check our motivation and the focus of our heart’s gaze. This requires constant vigilance and the searching gaze of the Spirit.