When you pray aloud, are you secretly driven by what others who hear you will think?
I love it when kids pray, but most Bible classes I teach include some students who are prayer show-offs. These are kids who, when it’s time to pray aloud, not only pray eagerly but also try to be the best at prayer and let the rest of us know it. They may do this by offering the longest prayers or the most requests, or by using fancy words and requesting prayers that sound extra godly. They may be jealous of other students’ prayers. Sometimes younger kids will even argue over who gets to pray about preferred topics. The prayer time is all about them.
Of course, not all kids are eager to pray aloud. Some are too timid to pray, for reasons that are quite similar at the heart level. They too are concerned about their performance and what others think. But I’m content to be patient with kids who don’t want to pray aloud, letting them get used to the idea and join in when they’re ready. Prayer show-offs are another matter. Their behavior not only reflects sin they must repent of, but feeds an insecurity over prayer that affects the entire class.
How do I address prayer show-offs? And how can I help the entire class keep from thinking about their performance when they pray?
In an odd way, it helps that this is not just a childhood problem we grow out of. Adults learn to hide it better, but many of us are just as obsessed (or more obsessed!) with what others will think of us when we pray. I get that way, so I can sympathize with the prayer show-offs in my classes. Here are a few ways I try to help them.
Acknowledge the sin. The first step towards repentance is to be aware of insecurity and self-exalting motives when we pray aloud. So when I notice show-off behavior during prayer time, I’ll often point it out. I try not to be accusing, but instead to remind everyone that this is an urge we struggle against and one we want to overcome in the Spirit’s power. Jesus warned about look-at-me prayers (Matthew 6:5), so I figure I should do the same. I try to address the heart-level idols beneath the outward behavior. Rather than saying, “Leave something for others to pray about,” I might ask, “Are you trying to feel important by praying for many things?”
Pray for the prayer time. Repentance and faith are gifts received from God, so it makes sense to pray that God will help us pray. Especially if students have been bickering or trying to one-up each other, I sometimes begin a prayer session by asking God to help us pray rightly. It’s not only a good reminder to be aware of our hearts; it’s also a way to seek help from the source of spiritual power.
Build an appreciation for God’s grace. Ultimately, prayer show-offs change by becoming humble and deeply appreciative that God has granted them the privilege of coming to him in prayer through Christ. This conviction is the Spirit’s work, but gospel teachers help in it. So my larger goal in all my time with students is to excite them with the good news of the blessings they have as brothers and sisters of Jesus. A kid who’s sure his heavenly Father delights to hear him pray won’t worry about the need to say just the right words, and a class that grasps how all our spiritual achievements are due only to Jesus will have no use for one-upmanship.
Cultivate reverence for God. Along with the freedom we feel to approach God as our Father, we need to sense the grandeur of the moment. He is the all-good King of the universe; it’s foolishness to show off in his presence. One reason to constantly show kids the beauty of Jesus is so they will approach God with wonder and awe, eager to receive from him rather than bent on impressing him or others.
These points roughly mirror my Gospel Environment Checklist adapted from Show Them Jesus. I find that when I remain aware of these points as I teach a class, it helps.
I think it’s also good to teach specifically about prayer sometimes. Prayer is so central to faith that we need to both practice it and study it. I was recently asked if I have a favorite Bible passage about prayer. Many of Jesus’s teachings come to mind, but one lesson I love to teach is a story about Joshua.
Joshua was leading the Israelites in battle against the Amorites, enemies of God who needed to be driven from the Promised Land. God was giving his people victory, but fading daylight threatened to end the fighting and keep the victory from being complete.
At that time Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,
“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel. (Joshua 10:12–14)
I’m struck by how the narrator of this account is impressed not with the fact that God could make the sun stand still, but rather with how God listened to Joshua’s prayer. What a blessing to have prayer at our disposal! What a wonder that God hears us!
Joshua must have been awfully confident in God to pray for the sun to stand still, and his prayer was right only because of his special mission. Still, we can have even more confidence than Joshua that God hears us, because there is another man whose voice the Father always heeds. Jesus is at the right hand of God, interceding for us, and the Father’s answer to him is forever “yes” (Romans 8:34, 2 Corinthians 1:20).
We pray in Jesus. Progress may be slow, but he is the final cure for prayer show-offs.
In the meantime, it is perhaps the greatest miracle of our lives—far greater than stopping the sun—that we with our selfish and guile-filled prayers are still heard and loved by our Father. In the blood of Christ, we come before God untainted. That is what I need to remember daily, and what I try to teach my students. As they latch onto it, prayer show-offs become prayer champions.
Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like. Your email address will not be displayed.)