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 I think 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 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 also contained prayers you could say for the prodigal. These prayers were amazing, and expressed things that I’d wanted to pray but the words just did not come to me. I was so 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 also encourages us to not be so biased against reciting prayers – as us evangelicals are prone to be! Here is an excerpt from the book about prayer:
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 really 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?