For a long time I was not comfortable with praying in front of other people. The basic worry seems to be that I was not sure who my audience would be. Would I be praying to God or praying in front of these people? It’s a worry we all have. I’m sure many have felt a tinge to say something specific in a prayer because you knew someone was there and they would hear it. At that point you are praying so that they hear you, not praying to God.
Maybe the point can be put in terms of intent and hope. I intend to pray in a way that is to God, but I hope these words are heard by someone in attendance. If this person is not paying attention and thus does not hear, it is not that my intent is frustrated but that my hope is not fulfilled. As long as I am still praying to God, my intent is completed in action even though this person does not hear, but my hope is not consummated.
This might help us get the order right. I pray these words with the goal of speaking to God. If the goal is for someone to hear, then my audience is others, not God. But can the order work the other way? Can I hope someone hears certain words and thus intend to pray them to God? Again, I think our reasoning matters here. If we knew this person would not hear the words, would we pray them to God? If not, then it seems like our intent really is for the person to hear the words and so we miss the point of prayer again.
While all of this is abstract, I think it’s rather practical too. Maybe people have studied this, but I find it likely that our prayers change based on our audience. If we are praying at church, we might say certain words. But if you put me before Democrats or Republicans or the king of Saudi Arabia, my words will probably be different. A good test is the way we pray the gospel. We probably pray the gospel when we are in an audience of people who do not believe. This is a way of sharing the gospel with them. But if we aren’t praying the gospel in front of brothers and sisters in Christ, then it is probably unlikely that we are really praying to God.
So for a long time I would not pray in front of others. This weird thing would happen when I did where I would feel an incessant need to smile after, as if I did something good and worthy of praise. I think my audience was other people. I knew that about myself, so I avoided public prayer like the plague. Sometimes I still feel myself praying so that others will hear. But prayer that is not to God is no prayer at all. May our lives reflect that.