“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
While taking classes in public speaking, I learned a very essential rule: the first one to say God loses. Throughout history, we humans have been very well-known for making God responsible for everything – including all of our really bad ideas.
Even in the scriptures God is responsible for all sorts of terrible things, genocide included. Why? Because if God is ultimately responsible for it, then we’re just simply doing God’s will. We like to tote God being on our side. It makes us feel good, look good, and think that we’re right, even when we are not.
Here’s the problem: God is not responsible for evil.
We are – God’s creations who have distorted all that was originally intended. We make God in our own image so that we can get away with anything and everything. Worse, we use God as an excuse and “get out of jail free” card when we get caught.
Many in our world describe Christians most often with the word “hypocritical.” Why? Though there are many of us who attempt to live lives of humble service, who admit we are fallen, who attempt not to judge – there are things that we say and do that unfortunately do make us as hypocritical as the “religious folk” Jesus is calling out in our text.
The Oxford English dictionary defines a hypocrite as someone who “claims to have more noble beliefs than are the case.” It comes from the Greek words that mean “to pretend” and “to judge.”
Jesus spoke to the first big thing that we do in our passage. All of us, at some point or other, are guilty of practicing our piety before others. We do it to show off how “good” of Christians we are. We don’t want to focus so much on all the ways we mess up. We hide the ways we do. All we want is to be seen as the perfect child of God – something that cannot possibly exist. We are pretending to be something we are not, while judging others for not being like us. So yes, that is the very definition of hypocrisy.
When we speak about God’s will, we often begin by speaking about those things which are against it: hatred. Malevolence. Injustice. Sowing mistrust. False imprisonment. Abuse. Violence. Murder. Rape. Theft. Broken relationships. Shattered bodies. All of these are terrible things. Sinful things. Evil things. But here’s the rub – when we hear about these things being done or things being said in support of these awful realities, and do nothing, we are hypocrites then too.
In all three of the Abrahamic religions, there exists an essential adage that if we see evil and do nothing – then we are as guilty as those who perpetrated the evil deeds.
As the young pastor from Germany once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
Make no mistake: Jesus did not remain silent. He stood up to powers that oppressed. He spoke in the face of rules that created isolation and caused harm. He flipped tables when there was no other way to make people listen.
When Jesus speaks about prayer, he knows that praying is often our most comfortable religious action. It is something we commonly do, something we are meant to do regularly. However, it is never, ever intended to replace the rest of what Jesus repeatedly tells us to do over and over and over again. If we keep praying and God’s will never impacts our thoughts, our speech, our actions – then we are praying to ourselves and not to God. We are acting the part, but not actually accomplishing anything.
Jesus’ ministry called people of prayer to live out their prayers through concrete action. And just as important as the things we are meant to stand against, those evils that do always seem to be rising up in our world, we are also intended to stand for other things. These are the things that visibly display God’s will – throughout scripture and history: they include hope, peace, compassion, justice, truth, wholeness, reconciliation, courage, learning, care, rebuilding, renewing, recreation, and yes, love. Love above all.
Though it may be a long road to overcoming our reputation for hypocrisy, the change that will bring that redemption starts with you and me. We must overcome our obsession with gods that look like us and make us feel content. We must let go our desire to give lip-service and bury our heads in the sand.
For God, who is sovereign and able to do grater things than we have seen, God does still speak. God does still act. God does so by pushing you and me out of our comfort zones, out of our prayer closets, and into the world that is in desperate need of those who truly live their faith – in concrete, tangible ways.
When we pray, your will be done, every day, it should occur to us more and more that God’s will is accomplished through those who would truly follow where God leads. Those who would practice their piety by living as Christ did: by bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, proclaiming God’s love in every place and to every single other person, by being Christ-like not just in our words, but more importantly in our actions.