Recently, it has come to my surprised attention that there is some false doctrine circulating through the church. This false doctrine is doing much harm to God's people, handcuffing God's people, and slowing the move of God. What is this false doctrine and how has is become so prevelant? It is simply this: Jesus said for us to pray at home in our prayer closet. Any Christian who goes to the altar to pray is either a) showing off to be seen of others, b) steeped in sin, or c) sinning by pouring out their burdens to God in front of others.
May I tell you that this is simply NOT TRUE? While it is true that some people do go to the altar to "show off", not all do. It is true that some Christians struggling with things (some sinful, some not) "make a bee line" for the altar, but why is this a sin? The supposed sinfulness of this practice comes from a complete misunderstanding of the above mentioned verses.
Let's take apart the verses, piece by piece, and see what we can find.
"And when thou prayest..." In both verses he says this. Message: Prayer is necessary! We cannot "make heaven our home" unless we maintain a real relationship with our creator! Reading and studying his word is also necessary, but without a prayer life: "the letter killeth, but the spirit gives life". We require both study and prayer, spiritually, in the same way that we need both food and drink, physically. All study and no prayer, we dry up. All prayer and no study, we blow up. It's that simple.
This whole section of scripture, here in Matthew, is part of the "sermon on the mount". Much of this sermon is a series of comparison and contrast between the actual teachings and practices of the day and the way God says they aught to be. In chapter 6, he begins a section of comparing what their religion taught them and how they, in contrast, should do the same practice. He was correcting their teachings.
"...When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are.."
Many a definition of the word Hypocrite has been given by many a teacher. Want to know what the actual word that Jesus used was and what it meant? The word, in the Greek, was hupokrites (hoop-ok'-ree-sis). The actual meaning is: "an actor under an assumed character (stage player), i.e. (figuratively) a dissembler (to put on a false appearance, conceal facts, intentions, or feelings under a pretense)". In other words, a biblical hypocrite is someone who is making an appearance of being right with God in order to gain the approval of men. Many an ungodly politician have used this tactic. They go to large churches and go through the motions, even saying the right words, in order to gain votes. However, when they get elected, their policies are anything but Godly!
The reason that this distinction is neccesary to make, is that many well meaning Christians (and preachers, as well) have taken this verse out of context and used it wrongly to hurt other people. The theory is that if you pray in public at all, then you are a hypocrite. Nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus himself prayed in public on several occasions. Furthermore, why is this "standard of conduct" only applied to born again Christians? The same people that rebuke other Christians for praying publically at the altar, are the first to jump for joy (rightly so) when a sinner goes to the altar.
The problem is, if their interpretation of this passage really means that praying in public is being a hypocrite, then noone can pray in public at all! This would preclude prayer to begin services, meetings, and classes. It would also prohibit sinners praying at the altar, as well as other public prayers- up to and including prayer over meals. Does all of this sound ridiculous to you? It does to me, too.
So what did Jesus mean here in Matthew? Simply put, a Hypocrite is not defined by where you pray, but the attitude in which you pray. If you have an attitude that says, "Look at me. See how Holy I am.", then you're a hypocrite, regardless of what you are doing! If however, you have a humble spirit, if you are sincerely reaching out to God when you pray, you are not a hypocrite. In fact you are doing just what Jesus said for us to do: "Come unto me, all ye that are weary, and I will give you rest." This verse applies to ALL people: male or female, sinner or saint. Irregardless of economic level or political affiliation, God is all about having a loving relationship with mankind.
He came to seek and save "That which was lost". That's all of us! We are all sinners. The only difference being in whether or not we are washed in his blood and in a right relationship with him. If we keep Davids attitude, we will be alright. David was not perfect. When God called him a "man after my own heart", he was not saying that David was 'like God". No, he was saying that this man, no matter how badly he fails, lives in hot pursuit of a loving relationship with me.
If we, in a right attitude, go to the altar to pray (whether for ourselves or others), then we are in hot pursuit of God's heartbeat.
So preachers and saints, do not prevent anyone from going to the altar for prayer. It's the attitude, not the act, that makes the difference. Who knows, you just may be surprised to find that you made heaven, in part, due to the times that that person took YOUR name to God at the altar! Just something to think about.