By Pastor Glenn Pease
Henry Brown prayed for a way to escape. He was a slave in Richmond, Virginia, and desperately wanted to be free. He finally felt his prayer was answered when he was inspired by a unique idea. He had the plantation carpenter construct a box the same size of the largest boxes that were shipped in that day. He then poked three holes in this three foot by two foot crate, and then he got inside. The box was taken to the express office, and from there it was taken by a baggage car to a steam boat, and finally transferred to a wagon which brought him to Philadelphia and to freedom. There was many a time when he longed to cry out for help, but he was resolved to be free, or to die trying. When the people he was mailed to opened the crate, he stood up and fainted. It was a hard price to pay, but he made his escape.
Escape is a word and experience we are all familiar with, but in the 1950's a new word developed that we are not very familiar with: The word is inscape. It is opposite of escape, in some ways, in that it refers, not to getting out of something, but of getting into something. It is not a fleeing away, but a fleeing within. On the other hand, it is very much like escape, in that its goal is also freedom. Henry Brown used escape as the means of getting his freedom. But many could mail themselves to anywhere in the world, and still not be free, because their slavery is of a different kind. They are like the Pharisees; enslaved to external values.
1. What do people think of me?
2. How is my external image?
3. How can I make the outside appear right?
4. How can I win the approval of men?
Their self-esteem and worth were tied directly to their popularity with men. They were slaves to the crowd, and this influenced every thing they did. They developed a fish-bowl religious life, for what good was it to be religious if people did not see. The external was everything. Whatever veneer made it look good was all that mattered. We probably would have liked the Pharisees, for they fit the Western culture, and are far more appealing to us than most Eastern holy men and mystics. The poet describes the contrast of the East and West in their religious method.
In Eastern lands the holiest gents
Are those who live at least expense,
They rarely speak; they seek release
From active life in prayer and peace.
But in the Western hemisphere
A saint must catch the public ear,
And rush about, and shout and bustle
Combining holiness and hustle.
We are in a culture where the external outweighs the internal in our religious value system. We cannot help that, but we can prevent becoming slaves to it. That is what Jesus is teaching His disciples to do in relation to the Pharisaical external system. How do you escape the domination of the external? Jesus says the answer is inscape. You don't run away from it, or mail yourself off to a monastery, or a society of mystics, but you strive for a balance by developing your inner world.
If success is pleasing God, and God is not pleased with all kinds of external forms and activities, where the heart is far from him, than it follows that the only road to spiritual success is the road to inner space. We are caught up in our focus on outer space, and that is awesome and wondrous, and leads to worship, because the more we know of the magnitude of God's creation, the more we marvel at His majesty. This is good, and it is to be pursued, but if it is the only road we travel, God is seen as a Sovereign King, but we miss the intimacy of knowing God as heavenly Father. This vital aspect of the God-man relationship calls for the conquering of inner space. Jesus says we must get away from the crowd, and get alone with God.
Alfred North Whitehead said, "Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness....Thus religion is solitariness, and if you are never solitary, you are never religious." In the light of what Jesus is teaching, this is true, if we add one word-if you are never solitary, you are never successfully religious. The Pharisees were religious, but not successfully. There religion pleased men but not God, and so it was not successful. Giving, praying, fasting, can all be religious activities, but only when they please God are they successful activities, and since Jesus says they cannot please God if they are only external, and not matters of the inner life, then it follows, no one can be a success at anything without inscape, or getting away to within.
Let's apply this the specific need to be successful in prayer. There are several characteristics that Jesus emphasizes that are crucial to successful prayer, but we want to focus on the one He most stresses, and that is-
I. SUCCESSFUL PRAYER IS SECRET PRAYER.
Prayer is not primarily a social activity. It is a private matter between an individual and God. Prayer is to the spiritual life what sex is to the marriage life. It is the secret, private, and intimate aspect of the relationship. It is not for public display. The Pharisees were using it for public display in both sacred and secular settings. They prayed in the synagogues, and on the street corners. Prayer was to them a publicity stunt that attracted the attention of men. This led to their being praised for their piety. They were symbols in their day very much like the modern day sex-symbol. Sex is displayed in a public way, not to enhance the marriage, and internal relationship of mates, but to attract the attention of the crowd, and get praise and popularity.
Prayer and sex have much in common, for both are avenues of intimacy that can be exploited, and become external tools for mass appeal. The world uses sex to get attention, and to manipulate people into buying most everything under the sun. Religious exploiters use prayer to do the same thing. The prayer gimmicks that have been used to manipulate Christians could fill a box car. As the world is titillated into thinking they will get an erotic thrill, so Christians often have the same motivation, and they are enticed into thinking they can get a special spiritual thrill, and supernatural answer to prayer, if we send out request to brother so and so, who will read it by the Jordan River, or nail it to a cross in some prayer tower.
All of these pro-Pharisee prayer promotions would never get off the ground unless there was something in human nature that loved external power. The fact is, the Pharisees were not as bad as we often portray them. They were just like everybody else, including us. That is why they play such a major role in New Testament teaching. When Jesus attacks their values, we need to see that as an attack, not on a few weirdo's of ancient history, but an attack on the natural tendency of human nature, including His own disciples, and us.
In verse 8 Jesus says we are not to be like them. Why bother to warn his sensible and godly followers not to be like them, unless this was the road they would tend to travel unless they were given other guidance? Lets face it, to this day we tend to be external rather than internal oriented, and what Jesus is teaching us here is just as relevant as the day he spoke it. Successful prayer must be first and foremost secret prayer. It is a matter of private communication between the believer and God. Jesus is anti-external because externals tend to lead to idolatry.
The woman at the well tried to get Jesus into the controversy of whether it was best to worship on the Mount in Samaria, the sacred place of the North, or the temple in Jerusalem, the sacred place of the South. What she failed to realize was, that in so many controversies the choices are limited to two, when often there is a third and better way. Jesus did not choose either of these two external places. He said, "God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth." In other words, the external place of worship was not the real issue. What really matters in successful worship is the inner spirit of the worshiper. If the spirit is right, and it is pleasing to God, one worships more successfully in a cabin than in a Cathedral.
From the perspective of Jesus, the Christian is to be much like the turtle who carries his sanctuary with him, and he can inscape anytime he chooses, and withdraw from the external world to the world within. The Christian needs to take seriously some of the Biblical imagery, and recognize that the kingdom of God is not out there in the world, but, as Jesus said, it is within. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. That means we don't have to go anywhere to pray, for we have our own temple with us all the time. How often Christian get into such strange controversies. Some struggle with the issue, should the church be left open for prayer? Some said no, for thieves and vandals could come in and do damage. Others said, but it is only right that people be allowed to approach God when they feel a real need. All of this is based on the world of externals which misses the whole point of Jesus. He is conveying the truth that the secret, solitary, sanctuary of the soul is always open, and God is ever present there.
I am afraid few Christians even consider the teachings of Christ in our national controversy over prayer in public schools. Nobody ever asked if public prayer is pleasing to God, or if Jesus ever advocated the idea. Here in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus even condemns prayer in the synagogue, the place of worship, when it is done for the wrong motive, based on the need for the external display of religion. I have a hunch that many who want prayer in the school want it there for the same reason the Pharisees wanted it: For display, and the making of the external environment looked more religious. I agree that prayer should be a part of every day in the life of children, but it should not be the prayer of some adult that could lead children astray. It should be private prayer in which each child seeks the guidance of God in their life.
There are a whole host of reasons why Baptists have historically opposed prayer in public schools. Many Baptists now support the move in this direction believing that our country needs all the help it can get to change its ungodly course. Nobody can disagree with that motive, and the day may come when it needs to happen. But the fact is, if children are taught to add prayer on to their lives as an external religious exercise, rather than to enter into the secret place of their soul to commune with God, we will be training people to be Pharisees, and not Christians. Millions have been spent, and millions more will be, to get children the right to do what Jesus encourages us not to do: Pray in public. Nobody needs a law, or any change whatever, to practice successful praying, according to Jesus. The freedom to pray in secret is, has been, and will ever be, available to all men. To pretend that any person, including a child, lacks what is necessary for successful praying, which pleases God, is to deny the teaching of Christ.
Religious practices are not automatically good, for if they are mere externals, as it was with the Pharisees, they actually become a hindrance to pleasing God. Who were the enemies of Jesus? It was not the publicans and sinners, nor the unbelievers. Jesus never once went into a tavern or house of prostitution to drive the sinners out with a whip. It was the temple that He so cleansed. It was praying in the synagogue to be seen of men that He condemned. Religion was the greatest obstacle to Jesus. It is dangerous to think that prayer, or any other religious practice will make men, or a nation, better. It will not. It will make them worse unless their religion, and their praying, becomes a part of their inner life, and makes them open to the spirit of God. Religion of any kind that does not change the inner man is seen as a curse all through history.
External religion thrives on public display and public approval. Much of our Puritan heritage is external religion. A mother shouted at her son, "Get out in the back yard and play, its Sunday." He said, "Isn't it Sunday in the back yard too mom?" Mark Twain said he could only play chess on Sunday if he gave Biblical names to all the pieces. All of the external religion piled on him led him to rebel against his Christian background, and he became a skeptic. This is a common problem, because the fact is, it is hard to be a Pharisee. Unfortunately, the world of religion is most often mere externals. Judson tells of how his first convert in Burma read this passage, and then responded, "These words take hold of my heart. They make me tremble. Here God commands us to do everything in secret, and not to be seen of men. How unlike our religion. When Burmans make offering at the pagodas, they make a great noise with trumpets and musical instruments that others may see how good they are. But this religion makes the mind fear God."
We do not mean to imply there is no place for public prayer. We have public prayer as a part of every worship service. But they are not private prayers said in public. They deal with public issues and needs common to the body. The pastoral prayer lifts up body concerns and needs so the whole body can join in seeking God's will. It would be folly for me to pray my private prayers in public for the attention of men. There is even a danger of praying in a restaurant. We almost always do it, but it is folly to think there is any merit in it if you attract the attention of others. My thanks to God is a private matter, and its only value is if God is pleased. If I started doing it to impress people around me, I am doing it for the same reason as the Pharisees did. When the motive for prayer becomes anything other than pleasing God, it is not successful prayer. That is why secret prayer is a key to success. In secret there is nobody else to impress but God. By inscape you escape all the foreign elements, and the temptation to be religious for the sake of others.
It is not that God is not present with us in the noisy market place, it is just that we are more present with Him in the quiet secret place. By shutting out the world, we concentrate on the One above all others. Just as your mate is pleased when you withdraw from the world to devote your full attention to them, so God is pleased when you forsake all others to be in His presence. This can be hard for many people in an external focused society. Secret prayer is hard for many American Christians, because they have not learned to enjoy solitude and being alone. We feel the pull of the crowd, and not the pull of the closet. In the middle ages the monastic movement went the opposite way, and Christians flocked to monasteries, and to the life of the closet. Much good came out of that, but it was also a loss of the balance life.
Jesus did not call us to live in the closet, but only to withdraw to the closet for prayer. We are to get back out into the world, and let our light shine before men. But, like Moses, we will not have the light of God shining from us if we do not get alone with God. So it is not a matter of either-or, but of both-and. We are to be introverts and extroverts, and, therefore, ambiverts. We are to be able to withdraw into solitude, and then to enter again into society. The Christian is to have the best of both worlds, for this is pleasing to God, and pleasing to men.
Prayer is the entering into the realm of liberty where you are free to be the real you. So much of what we express in public is based on how we feel we ought to be because of what people will think, but in prayer you can be honest. If you are hurt over some trivial thing, and it is causing resentment, on the outside you can be kind, but inwardly you feel anger and hostility. In prayer you can open up to God, and let Him see the real you that you fear to show to others. You can tell God you know its wrong and stupid to feel the way you do. This makes prayer a sort of therapy, where you confess and get cleansed from the negative feelings that life often brings to you.
Jesus did not go around preaching openly about His struggles with His divine destiny. In prayer, however, He opened up to the Father and shared the inner pressures and trials He had to deal with. Once He even prayed, "If it is possible let this cup pass from me." Jesus dealt with His inner conflicts in private, as He came before His heavenly Father in the privacy of prayer. The secret prayer life of Jesus is made public knowledge so we can see that even He needed a place of retreat where He could be fully honest before God about His inner feelings. If we follow Jesus as our example we will discover the secret of successful prayer.