Sometimes we may be obligated to bring prayer out of the closet.
A reader raised an important question in response to a blog piece I did a month or so ago about praying over a meal when others present are not believers. In a comment posted to the blog piece, Allegra observed that sometimes this is awkward even when the others are believers, particularly when “several Christians are at a table and one prays by himself, the others kind of fending for themselves.” What is the line, she asks, between personal prayer, which is certainly something between each of us and God, and (non-ecclesiastical) communal prayers, which have some sort of look-at-me aspect to them, even if that is not really the praying person’s motive.
I do think the issue is complex. As I argued in my little book, "Praying at Burger King," one reason to bow for silent prayer in restaurants is simply to acknowledge that God is present. But sometimes it is also important simply not to make others uncomfortable with one’s piety. If I am with a group of Christians in a restaurant and I feel that it would be one-upmanship to bow silently in prayer, I desist.
I once received a call from a Sports Illustrated writer about public expressions of personal piety at sports vents. He asked what I had to say theologically about an athlete who makes a very visible prayer-gesture during a game. My response was—and still is—expressive of the same ambivalence Allegra expresses. There is a part of me that likes it when a player bows on one knee in the end zone after scoring a touchdown, or crosses himself before a foul shot. But I still hear the words of the Sports Illustrated writer: “Isn’t there something in the Bible about keeping your prayers to yourself---like, doing it in a closet?”
For all of that, I do come down more often than not on the side of the public witnessing side of the issue. I don’t want in any way to “relativize” the admonition of Jesus on this subject, but it seems clear that he was warning against hypocritical shows of piety in public places, in a culture where that kind of thing was all too common. In our own context it is increasingly controversial to sponsor prayers at public events—community festivals, school graduations, and the like. It may be an obligation on our part, given these circumstances, to come out of the closet by using perfectly legal means of letting others know that we do acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all of life.
Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary