Recently, a discussion with a friend of mine helped me understand my mixed feelings about saying grace in public places like restaurants.
From an early age, Christians are taught that saying grace before meals is an important practice.
It’s a gesture designed to make us pause and recognize God as the provider in our lives. I have no problem with that.
Some families always say grace in their homes before a meal. I have no problem with that.
But when it comes to doing it in public like in restaurants, there’s something about it that bothers me a little. And recently, while having dinner at a restaurant with friends, I had a moment of clarity when the person leading the prayer made a comment about the reason he wanted to do so.
More on that in a moment.
A few years ago, I had coffee with a friend of mine at a coffee shop. We would sometimes pray together — not to say grace for the coffee but to lift up concerns in our lives.
I’ve never been one for putting on a show about my faith. In the right context, I’m happy to discuss my beliefs. I’ve certainly been doing it here for the world to see long enough.
But on this day, as we were about to part outside the restaurant, a woman who had been inside was driving by and stopped, rolling down her car window. She told us she was a Christian, too, and really appreciated seeing two men praying together in public because it was such a bold statement of faith.
I understood exactly what she meant and I knew that her intent was to be supportive and encouraging.
I wasn’t offended at all.
But part of me was a bit embarrassed. Not because I’d prayed or because I believe prayer accomplishes things.
I was a bit embarrassed because I felt I’d been putting on a show in doing so.
This lady was trying to be nice, but in all honesty, it was none of her business what my faith happens to be. It wasn’t the business of anyone in the coffee shop, either.
As I stood there, thanking her for her comment and wishing her a good day, a Bible passage popped in my head. It’s from the book of Matthew, chapter 6:
“And now about prayer. When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who pretend piety by praying publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. Truly, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets, will reward you.”
We weren’t praying in the coffee shop to be seen. But having been complimented for that prayer, it felt all of a sudden like it could be viewed as having been our intent and that bothered me.
At the same time, this passage itself bothers me a little, too, because it sounds like praying in private will get you what you want, when I think that’s the wrong reason to pray: you should be praying to communicate with God, not just to get some “reward” out of it; the one-on-one time with God ought to be sufficient reward in and of itself, even when we don’t get anything we ask for.
Back to that dinner…
Just before praying, my friend made a comment, “If we’re not ashamed of God, He won’t be ashamed of us.” He made the remark as if to justify the pre-meal prayer.
That bothered me even more. We Christians believe that God gave his own son — his child — to die on a cross to cover every sin we have committed and will ever commit in our lifetime. In accepting the salvation our faith tells us God offers us, we are instantly absolved.
So how, then, is God going to be “ashamed” of us, particularly if we’re trying to follow another passage of the Bible that specifically tells us prayer should be private?
It’s this kind of thinking that bothers me about traditional churches: they seem to think that God is walking around with a giant flyswatter just looking for a reason to swat us. I happen to believe that there’s no way we can surprise God.
That, to me, is inconsistent with a God that would give a part of himself to death so that we could live in eternity.
I’m not sure how public prayer done out of some kind of fear is better than prayer done in private where a real conversation can happen without distraction.
When I pray, I want it to be because I want time with God, not because I’m afraid not to or because I’m hoping someone else will notice. Those seem like all the wrong reasons to me.
Patrick is a Christian with more than 26 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.