The Bible is filled with multiple passages concerning prayer. Some of these speak about the attitude we should have, topics to bring before God, and more. All of which are good to consider, but one question we may still have is whether or not it is okay for us to pray publicly before eating meals. This cannot be answered with a straightforward “Yes,” or “No.” Especially since Jesus taught against praying publicly in some contexts. The text where this is shared reads,
“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.Matthew 6:5-6
Praying in Secret
When reading the above, a surface understanding of it is to only pray in secret. Doing otherwise would make one like the hypocrites. However, is that the only point that the Lord is making?
I believe that such a perspective is part of what Jesus is teaching. From this text, and others, Christ absolutely supports praying in secret (Matt. 14:22-23, 26:36; Luke 6:12). We should pray to our Father often, which will obviously include times when we are by ourselves. This concept of secrecy isn’t the only truth that Jesus is teaching though. He is also instructing us on the intent of one’s prayers.
In verse 5, Jesus is teaching against the actions of hypocrites. They pray to be seen by men, and stand in places where they can be easily found. These men want to demonstrate their supposed godliness and righteousness, and let everyone know it! Being elevated in the eyes of people was one of the rewards, so to speak, of what they sought. Such desires were not becoming of a child of God, and something we need to avoid today.
As if the above wasn’t clear enough, I’m going to go ahead and say this.
If you are reading this article to learn if you can pray in public, and also speak to God in order to be seen by people, please stop doing so. It is obvious that Jesus does not support such behavior. We should never pray with the intent of showing ourselves off to people or to receive accolades.
So, does the above text in Matthew present a blanket statement commanding us to never pray in public? I assert that it does not, and instead primarily teaches against ungodly motivations of prayer.
This can be understood by other verses on prayer. One of the shortest, and apparently contradictory, is from the apostle Paul. In one of his first letters he shares a number of short exhortations. One of them instructs us by simply saying,
Pray without ceasing.1 Thessalonians 5:17
That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? I bring it up because it is contrary to the passage in Matthew 6, and thereby raises a new question. How can we abide by the text in Matthew 6 if this one tells us to pray without ceasing? That is a reasonable question, but only challenging if one believes that the Gospel text is teaching us to never pray in public. I already explained why I don’t agree with that perspective.
One way these two passages can work together has already been explained. The verses in Matthew are primarily concerned with our motive for prayer, while this one is an instruction, or command, to pray constantly. Another way they can complement each other is the prospect of praying without anyone knowing you are doing so. Speaking extremely quietly, to the point of nobody being able to hear you other than yourself and God, is my preferred way of accomplishing this. Still others may conduct prayer in one’s heart or mind. Both of these methods enable us to follow the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:17, while also being secretive about it. The latter of which is in line with the principle of secrecy taught in Matthew 6:5-6.
Examples of Praying in Public in the New Testament
Now that those apparently contradictory passages have been resolved, we are now ready to move on to some verses that explicitly mention praying, or saying a blessing, before eating meals. In one of the letters to Timothy, the Holy Spirit prophecies that some will abstain from foods that were created to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3). This receiving with thanksgiving is again repeated in the next verse. The Spirit, speaking through the apostle Paul, then provides a reason to do so with the words,
For it is sanctified through the word of God and prayer.1 Timothy 4:5
Through this we see a connection between the eating of food and prayer. This isn’t the only place where that relationship is found. The Gospel of Matthew presents one of many accounts of Jesus feeding thousands of people.
He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass; and he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes.Matthew 14:19
This blessing and sharing of food was obviously not done in secret. The text speaks of multitudes of people, and as we know from verse 20, they all ate and were filled. This blessing is similar to Luke 24:30 where Jesus took bread and gave thanks. Even if today’s customs are different than those in the first century, the act of saying a blessing, or giving thanks, is still in accordance with what we find in the New Testament.
Both of these verses give us good reason to pray publicly prior to eating a meal, but some may not be aware that there is a third distinct passage that is pertinent to our discussion. It is found in Acts, and presents an example of an apostle giving thanks prior to eating food.
In chapter 27 of that book, we read of Paul, and several others, as they are on their way to Rome by boat. At one point, 276 people on the ship fast for two weeks straight (Acts 27:33, 37). The apostle pleads with them to eat some food. Verse 34 tells us this by saying, “Therefore I beg you to take some food, for this is for your safety; for not a hair will perish from any of your heads.’ “
The passage continues with our most powerful example,
When he had said this, and had taken bread, he gave thanks to God in the presence of all, and he broke it, and began to eat.Acts 27:35
This verse demonstrates that the apostle Paul gave thanks to God before eating in the presence of all. He spoke in front of non-Christians before partaking in a meal.
Isn’t that like what we do today?
When we pray before eating at a restaurant, we customarily do so to give thanks to God. Such statements of blessing are often short, and said in accordance with the words from 1 Timothy 4. Not because we want to make a scene, but rather to fulfill our desire to do what is right in the sight of God.
This may make us stand out, and some people nearby could bring up the text from Matthew 6 in their hearts against us. However, as long as we pray without the purpose of being seen by men and receiving their praises then we will still be different from the hypocrites mentioned in that chapter. Moreover, many may not even realize that we are communicating with God if we do it quietly or silently. Such prayers may bring us one step closer to heeding Paul’s command to pray without ceasing as well.
May all these thoughts encourage us to indeed pray words of thanksgiving to our God before meals, knowing that we should not be ashamed of Him. All the while seeking to be humble and loving around tables of friends, family, and food that the Lord has so richly blessed us with.
Close-Up of the Hands of Two People Praying by congerdesign from Pixabay.