Did Jesus really want us to go into a prayer closet to pray?
What would you say is the best place to pray? Jesus said it was a prayer closet. What was he really talking about?
Who better to give us an answer, than Jesus himself.
Jesus’s thoughts on prayer
Imagine you are in the crowd on the day Jesus is preaching his Sermon on the Mount. This new preacher makes a lot of sense. He’s made some very good points. He’s made you think about things in a fresh, new way and you’re listening intently.
Part way through his sermon, he starts talking about the way people pray out on the street corner or in the synagogues. You totally get it. You’ve seen those people showing off, trying to impress everyone with how holy they are by the loftiness and fervor of their public prayers.
But you’ve probably also seen these same outwardly religious folks behave in ways that are inconsistent with their seemingly righteous prayers.
You’ve seen their hypocrisy, but you would never dare to point it out, at least not in public. You could get labeled as unfaithful, which would be a terrible insult in a community where your faith in God is the most important part of your life.
But here is this Jesus preacher man openly accusing the religious leaders of being hypocrites in the way they pray. That takes a lot of guts to say these things in public, and you like him all the more for it.
And maybe you’ve seen, or at least heard about, the way Romans pray to their idols, repeating their petitions over and over vainly hoping to be heard by their deities. It’s more obvious to see the fruitlessness of that approach to prayer.
But Jesus has just opened your eyes to see there’s not much difference between these two types of prayer. They are both hollow. One is hollow in motive, the other hollow in substance.
A prayer closet, really?
Then Jesus tells the crowd to go into their closet and shut the door when they pray. (see Matthew 6:6 below) What is he getting at here?
Again it’s about your motive. Are you trying to impress other people with your mighty ability to offer impressive prayers in front of an audience? Are you trying to show God–or prove to your listeners–how holy you are? Oops! Wrong motive.
When was the last time you prayed out loud in a group, large or small? Maybe at church, in a Bible study, or a meeting? Think about the words you said. Were you trying to say a prayer that you felt everyone would agree with or think was helpful? Were you praying to God or at God? Were you praying so those around you would hear your words and be impressed, or were you praying with a heartfelt petition or praise to God?
All too often, when we pray out loud, there’s a mixture of wanting to be heard by men, and sincere petitions to God.
But even if you’re praying silently, it’s important not to let your prayers just be words without the heartfelt sentiments and desires behind the words.
Private prayer a protection
In telling us to pray in private, Jesus is trying, among other things, to protect us from those times when our desire for approval or to impress someone overrules our sincerity and we go overboard and get too wordy, or we are trying to be noticed for how great we are at praying.
What does it really mean to go in your closet and shut the door? Why is this so important? Jewish homes didn’t even have closets in the way we do today.
And, I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually go into my closet to pray. It’s a pretty small space and so crammed full of stuff there’s not even room to squeeze in there.
I know a lot of people do have a special little room or closet they use just for prayer. Several years ago the movie, War Room, popularized this idea of having a room, often an actual closet, in which to pray. And if you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it.
But is this really what Jesus was getting at? Did he mean this literally?
Did Jesus pray in a closet?
The best way to answer the question is see how and where Jesus prayed. Did he go into a literal closet to pray?
Of all the times the Bible talks about Jesus praying, he is never in a little room with the door shut. In fact, at one point in his ministry, Jesus says he doesn’t even have a home of his own,
“Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” Matthew 8:20 NLT
That sort of implies he didn’t have any closets either.
There’s nothing wrong with having a special room or place to pray, but this is not specifically what Jesus is talking about.
A spiritual storehouse
I have usually thought of the closet he was referring to, and by the way, most modern Bible translations use the word “room” instead of “closet”, as a place to be quiet, where I can shut the door on all the noisy demands of a given moment and be in communion with God.
Sometimes this means literally shutting a door to my bedroom or office. But even with the physical doors shut, I still have to shut the mental doors to all the thoughts clamoring for attention and keeping me from focusing on prayer.
One day, I got curious about the word translated closet in the KJV. It seems an odd word for Jesus to use. So I looked it up. It comes from the Greek word tameion which means a dispensary or storehouse or a place for privacy.
Maybe you have a pantry in your kitchen, or at least some shelves for storage. When you need something that’s in there, you open the door and get what you need. Simple as that.
Go into your storehouse
This gives just a hint at what Jesus was talking about. Think for a minute about the implications of going into your spiritual storehouse to ask God for something in prayer. You go in with a need, whatever it is, and shut the door. In other words, you stop thinking about all the stuff outside. And you know that what you need is in there. In fact, all you can see are the resources you already have.
I think Jesus was demanding two things of us.
First, he wants us to be grateful for what God has given us up to this point.
But more importantly, we can pray for the current need from a place of abundance instead of lack. Since God has supplied what is already in the storehouse, He is more than capable of giving us what we need at this moment.
Going into your closet, your storehouse, is going where the supplies are. Going into your prayer closet is going where the answers are already present.
Why pray with the door shut?
So why should we shut the door and pray in secret?
To close the door of our closet or private room, means to shut out the world’s distractions when we pray.
It keeps the world’s distractions out of us, but it also keeps us out of the world.
And it allows us to hear God more clearly when all those distractions are silenced.
Is Jesus talking about shutting a literal door?
You could actually be in a closet or a private space with the door shut and still be distracted with the cares and worries of this world. Especially if you have your smart phone with you and you’re watching TikTok videos.
Have you ever set aside time to pray, but when you finally sit down to pray, it feels like your mind is a multi-tiered hamster wheel with little critters running in every direction? I certainly have. It’s kind of hard to focus with all that mental activity going on.
A mental door
The door Jesus is talking about is a mental one. You can shut this door even if you are on the crowded streets of a busy city or in a noisy airplane terminal.
When I’m in a boisterous or distracting situation sometimes I quietly say to myself something like: “I am closing the door on all this worldly noise. I’m going into my prayer closet.”
When I realize I’m caught up in all the outward clutter the world wants me to participate in, the drama, the dreariness, and the distractions (good or bad), I often can turn things around pretty quickly, or rather “shut the door of my closet” by asking, “God, what do You think about this situation (or person)? What do You see going on?
Jesus’s promise is that, when we pray in secret, God will reward us openly–in His way, on His schedule. To me this implies that you cannot stay in the closet forever. You have to come out and use the resources from your store room, the ideas, the answers God has given you.
The next time you pray, go to your secret place of spiritual abundance, shut out the nagging worries of the day or the problem at hand and see the good God has already bestowed on you. Accept with gratitude His blessings past, present, and future. Then pray with all your heart. Trust Him with your innermost desires.
Silence is golden: Be quiet and you might get rich
One more thing about being in a closet is you don’t really need to talk out loud. You can if you want to, but God hears the unspoken desires of your heart without you saying anything. The closet is a place to quietly renew your spiritual awareness and ability to commune with God.
Throughout Jesus’s ministry he would often preach, teach and heal all day long. He had to pray on the go. But he also took time to pray in quiet solitude.
On one particular day, Jesus had healed the man with the unclean spirit, Peter’s mother-in-law, and a multitude of people. The next morning Jesus got up “a great while before day” and went to “a solitary place, and there prayed.” (Mark 1:35, see below) He needed, wanted, loved to commune with his heavenly Father.
If Jesus needed to pray, then we should never fool ourselves into thinking we can coast by without praying. And sometimes, you have to get up early in the morning like he did so there are no distractions.
This deep, silent, and solitary communion with God, this going-into-the-closet-and-shutting-the-door type of prayer becomes a foundation for the rest of your day and allows you to know exactly how to pray on the go as challenges or issues come up. It’s like having your tank filled with gas and not having to worry about running out of gas as you drive around during the day.
Don’t stay in your prayer closet
However much time Jesus spent in solitary prayer, he also went out to where people were, people who needed his message of healing, hope, and salvation. I don’t think he quit praying when he was teaching, preaching, and interacting with people. It was just a different type of prayer. It was prayer in action.
Jesus was never caught off guard because he always had his “quiet time” with his Father.
He could see things coming. He could discern the thoughts of those he helped, the hateful thoughts of those who opposed him, and the faithful and repentant thoughts of those who came to him for healing, because he had already been praying.
And in a way, Jesus’s actions themselves could be seen as prayers, the “Word made flesh” so to speak, words transformed into deeds, truth translated into action, and compassion into healing.
Prayer is seeing what’s possible to God
Prayer is not just using your brain to imagine what you want to be true. It’s not wishful thinking or a visualization technique of the human mind.
Prayer is going into your mental and spiritual closet, shutting the door on what the world says, and opening the door to the kingdom of heaven in your heart and seeing what is possible to God. It is bearing witness to what is already true in heaven.
Jesus could thank God for the multitudes being fed before it happened, because he could see that in heaven, everyone already had everything they needed. He could thank God for hearing his prayer and raising Lazarus from death before he called Lazarus out of the tomb, because he could see there is no death in heaven.
All this applies to our prayers as well. We can’t just sit around all day in our prayer closets and think there is nothing else to do. Now don’t get me wrong. I have my “prayer chair” and I spend a lot of time in it.
But we need to come out of our prayer closet and put into practice what God has given us.
Where do you pray?
So let’s come back to the question: Where is the best place to pray?
By now, you know I’m not talking about a physical location. The closet Jesus tells us to pray in is not a place but a state of mind.
Another way to ask the question is: Where do you stand when you pray?
Are you standing on the Rock of Truth or on the sand of personal desires?
Are you praying with your human mind (self-will) or the mind of Christ (the will of God)?
Do you pray from a standpoint of the kingdom of heaven being at hand or hereafter?
The way you actually live your life, and not what you say you believe, answers these questions and determines to a large degree the effectiveness of your prayers.
Where did Jesus pray?
Jesus stood on his oneness with the Father. He knew nothing could separate him from his divine Parent. His modus operandi was to do only God’s will.
When you pray, do you stand on your oneness with the Father? Jesus prayed for you to experience this relationship of unity with God as he did.
Referring to everyone who would ever believe on him, he prayed,
“that they may all be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.” John 17:21 ESV
Are you standing where Jesus prayed for you to be? If not, you don’t have to go anywhere to get there. You just need to shift your whole perspective from what the world tells you is true to what Christ tells you is true. This is allows you to see that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and not just way off in the future after you die.
To acknowledge that the kingdom of heaven is at hand goes against everything the world has taught us. That’s why we have to shut the door on it.
To the degree that you and I see the supremacy of God’s rule, God’s kingdom, here and now on earth and bear witness to the truth that heaven is at hand, we will think like Jesus did. We will pray like Jesus did. We will heal like Jesus did.
If you have questions or comments please contact me. I’d love to hear from you..
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Matthew 6:6 KJV
6 “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Matthew 8:20 NLT
20 “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.”
Mark 1:35 NKJV
35 Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed.
John 17:21 ESV
21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.