Vol. 3, No. 12
There is a difference between a secret religion and a religion in secret. Some in Jesus' day were secret disciples for fear of the Jews (John 7:13), including (at one point) Nicodemus (John 19:38). Some today are secretive about where their affections lie, not wanting classmates, co-workers or comrades to know they are Christians. They should "come out of the closet" (Romans 1:16; Mark 8:38) and take a stand for Christ (Philippians 1:17; Jude 3).
Others claim to be Christians, but only in public. They are outwardly devoted, attend worship assemblies and try to keep good reputations. But that is about as much "religion" as they can muster. Christ is not mentioned around their dinner tables or invited into their inner chambers. When private lives become public record at Judgment, they will be red-faced. Jesus gave some indication at how he will handle this when he confronted some while still on earth whose lips did not match their hearts (Matthew 15:8-9; 23:1-39). They did not leave smiling!
God intends for Christians to have religion in secret, though not secret religion! He wants us to practice "closet Christianity."
CLOSET CHRISTIANS PRAY IN PRIVATE. Jesus said, "…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 6:6). "Closets" may be taken literally, of course, but the word (tameion) simply refers to, "a chamber on the ground-floor or interior of an ancient house generally used for storage or retirement; secret chamber, storehouse." Your "closet" may be a study, bedroom, basement, outside spot -- any place where your actions would remain unknown. Jesus simply wants us to pray in private.
God's people have prayed in many places. Elisha prayed in a death chamber (2 Kings 4); Jonah in the belly of a whale (chapter 2). Eliezer stood alongside kneeling camels at a well and presented God an unusual request (Genesis 24:11-12; cf. 1 Chronicles 23:30). Isaac prayed in a field and on a hillside (Genesis 24:63; 28:18-20). Elijah prayed in a child's bedroom (2 Kings 4:33). Hezekiah laid a letter on the floor in the Lord's house and earnestly prayed (2 Kings 19:14). Jesus' "closet" was once in a garden a stone's throw (out of earshot) from his disciples (Luke 22:41). Paul and Silas prayed in a prison (Acts 16:25). Lydia prayed by a river (Acts 16:9) and some elders kneeled on a seashore with Paul and prayed (Acts 20:36).
Jesus wants us to pray "in a closet" for two reasons. First, the "shut door" eliminates the temptation to exalt self. In the context, he condemns those who pray to be seen of others. Since only God is in the closet, and since he knows us better than we know ourselves, there is no motivation to deceive or to make a display of how righteous we are. The meek and lowly Jesus constantly rebuked proud, arrogant people (Luke 18:10-14; cf. Matthew 11:28-30). For our prayers to be heard, we must humble ourselves in his sight (1 Peter 5:6; cf. Mark 7:24-30; Luke 11:5-13; 2 Chronicles 7:14; 34:27). Robert Browning wrote of "that stoop of the soul which in bending raises it too." The only way up is down.
Second, the shut door eliminates distractions. When we retire as far as possible from the world, it is easier to concentrate on God (Psalm 42:1). Silent prayer, especially, is hard to practice without the mind wandering. Having a quiet, private place -- without interfering noise of radios, televisions, computers, phones, pets or children -- facilitates prayer in that we can more easily keep our minds on what we are doing. Our "closet" should be a place where we can pray audibly and no one can hear us.
To "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), we should take time "to go into the closet" in the morning and before retiring at night. Some find time during a lunch break to "find a closet" and pray to receive the blessings prayer adds to their lives (James 4:2; 5:13, 16). It is a good idea to pray at the same place and times each day. Habits -- good and bad -- are hard to break.
CLOSET CHRISTIANS GIVE PRIVATELY. "… when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth" (Matthew 6:3). Hypocrites give to be noticed by others, and will receive no reward from God (Matthew 6:1-2; cf. 5:16; 23:5). Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of this (Acts 5:1-10). Each Christian is to give in public assemblies (1 Corinthians 16:2), but there are times to give when no one else will know. We labor with our hands so that we may have to give to those who need (Ephesians 4:28). The Good Samaritan gave when he met one in need (Luke 10:35). We should look for opportunities to give "in the closet." God sees there; he will reward (Matthew 10:42; 1 Timothy 5:25).
CLOSET CHRISTIANS STUDY IN PRIVATE. Paul was a "closet Christian," for he asked for books even while in prison (2 Timothy 4:13). Second Timothy four ends Paul's fourteenth book; it is his hundredth chapter. "The letters he launched from the end of his chain and from a dark dungeon at last exploded the pagan empire with all its diabolical institutions; and the historical church erected its cathedrals upon the ruins of it."1 Among the last words of him who wrought a greater change in the condition of mankind than any other man who ever lived (besides his Lord the Christ) is a request for study materials.2
"Closet" Christians know that they cannot learn enough in public Bible classes alone. Normally, only four hours a week are spent at a church in Bible study and worship (probably half that in actual study), which is only 1/42nd of the week. Paul told the young workman Timothy to give diligence to study, lest he be ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15). The Bereans searched the Scriptures everyday (Acts 17:11). The Bible contains a blessing for its readers on whatever day and at whatever hour it is consulted (Revelation 1:3). This "closet" study, with no one to disturb, becomes very meaningful to the soul. As one communes with God with his Book open upon his lap, he draws closer to the Author. His mind soaks up the Word like a dry sponge soaks up a glass of water or a starving man tackles a feast. "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (Matthew 5:6).
CLOSET CHRISTIANS MEDIATE IN PRIVATE. God's people have always meditated: Isaac went into a field to mediate (Genesis 24:63). God told Joshua to meditate for prosperity (1:8). The blessed man meditates day and night (Psalms 1:2; cf. 19:14; 36:4; 119:97). In Psalms we read: "…commune with your own heart upon your bed…" (4:4); and, "…when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches" (63:6; cf. 104:34; 143:5). Timothy was instructed to mediate upon what he learned (1 Timothy 4:15).
Meditation adds depth and practicality to Bible study. It translates an ancient Bible into modern life. One old preacher and trainer of preachers said he uses the 40/20 rule. For every forty minutes spent reading, he spends twenty thinking about what he read.
We can be in the "closet of meditation" at nearly any time. Newton was loafing when he saw an apple fall and "discovered" gravitation. Galileo was searching for peace for his soul when he watched a great swinging lamp. It gave him the idea of the pendulum swinging to and fro as a means of measuring the passage of time. Watt was relaxing in the kitchen when he saw steam lift a teakettle lid and conceived the steam engine. We can contemplate what we have recently learned about God's Word from sermons, classes or personal studies while driving to work, mowing grass, lying awake at night, waiting for appointments, hunting, fishing, taking a walk or during a slow time at work. Who knows what great Bible truth we may discover in a couple hours of "loafing meditation?"
While some are "coming out of the closet," let's go back in!
1 James Burton Coffman, Commentary 1, 2 Timothy.
2 The Bible does not record the last days of Paul. Tradition tells us that he was found guilty and sentenced to die. He was probably taken outside the city and beheaded. As John Wesley used to say, “God buries His workmen, but His work goes on."