I grew up in a conservative evangelical group in an area of the USA where evangelicals were a minority. The primary religious group was one that was formal and ritualistic. In this group, the people tended to only say rote (memorized) prayers. Of course, as evangelicals we only said personal, informal prayers sharing our hearts with the Lord, and we looked down upon the rote prayers. That was “vain babbling” or “meaningless repetition” (Matthew 6:7)!
Well, my opinions have changed over the years. I think there are pros and cons to either way of praying, and a mixture of personal prayers and reciting prayers may be the best. Yes, reciting a prayer can indeed be nothing but meaningless repetition but…it can also be very meaningful!
A recited prayer may put into words something we were unable to express. Words can fail us for a variety of reasons. A prayer may say something we should admit or express, but are unwilling to do so. Our hearts can deceive us and we can be self-centered. A prayer may remind us of critical Christian beliefs and keep us focused.
The first time I was awoken to this was when I got a Christian book about dealing with the “prodigal” in your life. It was a practical book, and contained prayers you could say for the prodigal. These prayers were amazing, and expressed things that I’d wanted to pray but the words did not come to me. I was thankful for these prayers and began to pray them.
From time to time since then, I’ve come across other prayers that I like, and I have a couple of them written in the front of my Bible.
But on the other side, personal prayer is important too. We should be able to spontaneously share our hearts with the Lord and not be reliant on a prayer book. I’m reminded of a (sad? amusing?) story I heard – A friend was in the hospital and saw her clergy walk by but the clergy was not at the hospital for visitation but for other reasons. She called out to her clergy and asked him to pray for her. The clergy responded that he could not pray with her as he did not have his prayer book with him. She asked if he could just say a personal prayer for her instead, and he indicated he didn’t know how to do that and needed his prayer book. Whether that really happened or not, the point is that we can become dependent on rote prayers.
I recently read the book Simply Christian by NT Wright and he shared some thoughts on prayer. He encourages us to not be so biased against reciting prayers – as evangelicals are prone to be! Here is an excerpt from the book:
“There’s nothing wrong with having a form of words composed by somebody else….There is nothing wrong, nothing sub-Christian, nothing to do with ‘works-righteousness’ about using words, set forms, prayers and sequences of prayers written by other people…Indeed, the idea that I must always find my own words, that I must generate my own devotion from scratch every morning, that unless I think of new words I must be spiritually lazy or deficient – that has the all-t00-familiar sign of human pride, of ‘doing it my way’: of, yes, works-righteousness. Good liturgy – other people’s prayers, whether for corporate or individual use – can be, should be, a sign and means of grace, an occasion of humility (accepting that someone else has said, better than I can, what I deeply want to express) and gratitude. How many times have I been grateful, faced with nightfalls both metaphorical and literal, for the old Anglican prayer which runs:
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
— I like his point that personal prayers can become works-righteousness too – and even be prideful! I’m open to any thoughts or comments. Do you agree? Were you biased against reciting prayers, like I used to be? Do you have a recited prayer you’d like to share with us?
My answer on whether it’s better to go with the personal prayer or a structured prayer is yes. Seriously, I’ve found that both have a wonderful place to take, and both can interfere greatly in my relationship with God. Your points here help me see that even more clearly, Laura.
Something else that is tickling me is that this is the third time today that God has used someone else’s words to bring prayer to mind for me. First I read about it over at the messionaryme blog, then I encountered it in a chapter in Keri Wyatt Kent’s Deeply Loved (which I am reviewing tomorrow at my place, by the way). Now you brought it up here. Am I supposed to be thinking about prayer today or what?
Thanks Tim, and glad to hear there were several posts related to prayer!
Eric R said:
I use written prayers all the time in personal worship, and have introduced them in corporate worship. I used to have a problem with them until I began to realize just how shallow my owns prayers really are. I use them now to “jumpstart” my own prayer life. The use of prayer books and the recitation of the both the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer every day as radically improved my own devotional life.
In defending the Book of Common Prayer against the Continental Reformers and Puritans, Anglicans have always argued that we all use repetitive prayers. We learn a particular lingo and phraseology and we say it over and over and over. “Thank you for this day. Be with us today in our worship. Be with us as we travel. Bless our food to the good use of our bodies. Forgive us our many sins.” If we’re going to fall into rote patterns anyway, we might as well use thoughtful patterns that are theologically sound.
What tends to happen among my clergy friends who use prayer books is that even when they pray extemporaneously, their prayers have a deeper, more careful, and more powerful wording to them. I’ve come to believe that reading and writing prayers actually aids us in becoming better prayers.
All good points Eric! Thanks for sharing. You are right – our personal prayers can become rote too – saying certain phrases and lingo over and over. I’m also reminded of how evangelicals can be anti-liturgy, but lets face it, our services have patterns and routines too.
Thank you for reminding me of something. Years ago as a new Christian I started a notebook of phrases and certain words I heard others say in prayer or I read in a written prayer. It might be something like “create in us a new heart Father”— or —-”we bring this to the foot of the cross”, just different ways of expressing things so I wasn’t saying the same thing all the time. I also had a section on different ways to address God, “Almighty God, Righteous Father” etc, etc, because after all the Bible gives us a lot of Names He goes by but unless we practice them we have a tendency to always address God the same way.
It really helped me and I think I’ll dig that out again. Thanks for the post.
Thanks for your comment Trac. I like the notebook idea!
I have learned to pray and start to build my own prayers from a Spiritual Warfare book, and I have received an answer from my Lord who I think should always be addressed as Lord. As for ‘rote’ or repetition, are we not guided by the Bible to ask and remind the Lord of our wishes? Do we not plead our sins? Is that not repetition? The Lord knows all about us, how can we possibly express anything new to the one who can see our very soul? He has heard it all before, we can only do our best.
Good points. Many of our prayers are indeed repetitive – for good reasons. Thanks for leaving a comment.
Patrick James said:
I tend to disagree mostly about the value of reciting canned prayers. My childhood and religious background brought me to that conclusion. You see instead of a relation ship with my Creator i was taught to have a relationship with my religion and all it’s rules and regulations. Believe me there were thousands of vain repetitions in those years, many commanded that they be said by me to make atonement for my sins. I really appreciate Luke 1:1-4 as a outline of how I pray vs a quick mindless babble in an attempt to alleviate any guilty feelings for not praying. In this system I grew up in, Elementary through High School I cannot honestly remember one time when we cracked open the bible and looked at a scripture. We just swam in the blindness of rituals that we were expected to partake of. In scripture we are commanded to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, that seems to leave some room for the idea that what works for you or me might not work for anyone else. The baggage we carry around shapes our view on such things. It is not a matter of salvation just how we respond to our Maker. I do sometimes have a sincere heartfelt conversation with my Lord through a recited prayer, but more so with a honest speaking of my thoughts.
Thanks for sharing this Patrick. “The baggage we carry around shapes our view on such things.” – Definitely. I can understand how your background would make you preferential towards personal prayers.