The Private or the Public – What’s More Important?
I’ve sometimes heard leaders talk to other leaders about the importance of our private devotion to Jesus being deeper than our public devotion: time spent on our own, in private, with Jesus, is more important than time spent with others, in public, with Jesus, and the latter should flow out of the former. When I’ve heard this in the past, I’ve tended to nod in agreement and have found it a helpful challenge. However, I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t quite the right way to lay down that challenge.
One morning recently I was reading Matthew 23 – Jesus’ stark and sometimes uncomfortable words about the scribes and the Pharisees. As I reflected on the challenge of these words I began to pray through the woes – asking God to strengthen me and enable me to heed the warnings Jesus presents.
When I got to the fifth and sixth woes (Matt. 23:25-28) I began to pray that I would not be like a cup or plate that’s clean on the outside but full of muck inside and that I would not be a whitewashed tomb, outwardly beautiful but inwardly full of death.
And then I prayed that my private devotion would outweigh my public devotion – but at that point I stopped. I realised the private and public divide was not Jesus’ point. I could be just as much a half-cleaned piece of crockery or a whitewashed tomb in private as I could in public. The issue isn’t the context of devotion, but whether it’s more than skin deep. It’s about the inside aligning with the outside, not just the private with the public.
It’s not that the private isn’t important in our relationship with God – earlier in Matthew Jesus has made clear that it certainly is. Giving, prayer and fasting are all to be done for an audience of one, our Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6:4, 6, 17). But even here, the key point Jesus is highlighting is whether we do these things for others or for God. When Jesus suggests a public-private contrast, it’s actually just a way of affirming the importance of the external-internal contrast.
As I mused on all of this, it struck me that perhaps our preferencing of the private over the public is part of our general preferencing of the individual over the corporate. This latter preference can be seen all over certain forms of contemporary Christianity. It’s seen in our extolling of private devotions over corporate worship. And I think it’s even seen within much of our corporate worship: do the worship practices of contemporary evangelical churches actually allow us to worship corporately, or are we more like a bunch of individuals all worshipping individually just, as it happens, in the same place at the same time?
In many of our songs we speak in the first person singular – it’s all about me and God. If we encourage those who can to raise their voices together employing the gift of languages/tongues, we’re all separately engaging in a practice that Scripture seems to indicate is, unless an interpretation is shared, between just the speaker and God. And when we bring a Scripture to exhort each other in worship or indeed when we seek to open up the Scriptures in preaching, we often read only vertically (God and me, here and now) rather than horizontally (God and us and our place in a bigger story through time).
If this is so, I wonder if we might benefit from learning from traditional forms of liturgy. Prayers to be said together, the recitation of the creeds that unite us with Christians in other times and places, corporate confession and assurance of forgiveness, these are all worship practices that might help us to worship more corporately. We might also benefit from thinking about the Scriptures we choose to use in our corporate gatherings. Ian Paul has made a really helpful point about the three Scripture passages that are at the core of Anglican worship services: how they draw us to see our place in a bigger story of what God has done in Jesus and link us with the people of God throughout the ages. They help us view things in the key of the corporate as well as the individual. Maybe there’s something to learn there. And maybe reclaiming the value of the corporate might also help us to reclaim the value of the public.
I do want my internal devotion to outrun my external devotion. I want what you see on the outside to be what’s there on the inside, but I want that in both the private and the public, the individual and the corporate.