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In Defense of Formal Prayers

Written vs. Spontaneous Prayers

From a young age, I was under the impression that written and recited prayers were innately less spiritual than those prayers which were spoken in the moment. I assumed that the only prayer God paid attention to was the prayer prayed “from the heart.” And naturally, we could only speak from the heart by saying whatever happened to come into our minds.

I no longer believe this.

During the reformation, an antiliturgical movement was spearheaded by a group of puritans. These men and women, though well-intentioned, downplayed the value of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and anything that they interpreted as not sufficiently ‘spiritual.’ As a result, a number of early Baptist, Congregationalist, and Quaker groups denied the efficacy of formal prayers for a number of reasons, including:

  • “Written prayers deprive the person of his or her own thoughts and words.”
  • “Set forms could not meet the variety of needs in a particular congregation.”
  • “Set forms are idolatrous as they equate the liturgy with the Bible.”
  • “Set forms lead to overfamiliarity and lack of interest.”

I can appreciate several of these arguments. But I fear, in their zeal to make worship and prayer more ‘spiritual’, they may have thrown out a valuable means of spiritual development.

Though I would never advocate for the sole use of pre-written prayers, I do believe that formal, recited prayers do have their place in the Christian life, both individually and corporately. And I believe this for several reasons.

Written Prayers Have Deep Roots…

The recitation of formal prayers have roots that run deep throughout Christian history and into early Judaism. The People of God have, for generations, prayed the words of scripture by reciting the Psalms to God. The shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) was also prayed by Israelites twice a day from very early on. By the first century, Jews had a collection of prayers and blessings called the Amidah which they “offered three times a day in personal prayer and during synagogue services” (Hardin).

Jesus was also an advocate for the recitation of prayers. When his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus responded, “When you pray, say…” and then gave them the ‘Lord’s Prayer.’ Believers who reject all pre-written prayers as unspiritual twist Jesus’ words when they deny that he intended his disciples to recite this prayer. He clearly says, “when you pray, say…” I believe that the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ provides a template for a well-rounded prayer life; but I also believe there are times when we ought to pray the very words that Jesus gave us.

The early church also believed in reciting pre-written prayers. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents not included in the New Testament, instructs believers “as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, thus pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one; for Yours is the power and the glory for ever. Thrice in the day thus pray.”

We shouldn’t quickly write off the fact that recited and written prayers have a rich history in the Christian tradition. When we pray the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, we are joining our voices with millions of other believers around the world and throughout history who have spoken those same words in dozens of different languages. These prayers help tie us to the universal church and keep our prayers grounded in scripture and the historic Christian faith.

Written Prayers Teach us to Pray…

As I’ve already mentioned, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he didn’t respond with a list of rules and suggestions for prayer. He gave them a model.

Modeling is one of the most effective means of teaching. If I had to choose between someone telling me how to do something and someone showing me how to do something, I’d prefer them showing me every time.

The first time I got in front of a high school classroom to teach, I had not taken a single course on teaching method. Instead, I remembered what teachers I had learned from had done and I imitated them. I learned how to teach by the models that I watched growing up. The same is true of prayer.

If we want to teach young believers how to pray, the best way we can do that is by giving them a model. And there is no greater model than the one that Jesus gave his disciples – the ‘Lord’s Prayer.’ Though I believe there is also value in praying the written prayers of other saints from scripture and Christian history. They can help us see ways of praying that we might not otherwise see.

I strongly believe that as we pray formal, written prayers, our spontaneous prayer life will be given new life. These model prayers can give us words for feelings and experiences that we’ve tried unsuccessfully to grapple with. Written prayers also help round our prayers off so they don’t become one-sided and focused only on one topic, idea, or petition.

If someone were to come to me and ask me how they should pray, I wouldn’t lay out a prayer plan that included suggestions and tips for making prayer more ‘spiritual.’ I’d give them some prayers that have stood the test of time and tell them to learn from them.

Written Prayers Give us Words…

There are times in our lives when we simply don’t have the words. In those moments, written prayers can speak for us, giving voice to emotions and experiences that we’re having a hard time verbalizing.

For example, when I’m facing opposition, I could try to think of the words that best capture my feelings, or I could simply cry out alongside the Psalmist, “O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol” (Psalm 88:1-3).

There’s something comforting about praying the same words that generations of believers have prayed – even martyrs. It reminds us that our situation is not unique and so, neither are our prayers.

In addition, I believe one of the reasons that many believers are reticent when it comes to praying in public is because they don’t have the words. By including written prayers during public worship, people get used to the idea of praying in a corporate setting. This is an easy step that a congregation can take as it seeks to develop a healthier corporate prayer life.

But They’re Rote and Unspiritual…Right?

Even after reading all of this, I’m sure that some of you are unconvinced. You might argue that written prayers lead to a rote, dead spirituality. But my response is simple: it isn’t the presence or absence of written prayers which hinder one’s spiritual vitality. A person can pray off-the-cuff with the same rote, dead spirituality as a person can recite written prayers. The problem isn’t the method – it’s the heart and spirit behind it.

Naturally, when praying written prayers, we ought to be careful to maintain our engagement with God – but that’s something we must be careful about regardless of the way we pray. I can pray the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ fully engaged with God in every word. I can also pray extemporaneously without either considering what I’m saying or having my heart in it. Again, it isn’t the method – it’s the spirit behind the words.

And if reciting pre-written words is, by its nature, less spiritual than speaking “from the heart” then why do we sing pre-written songs? Why not just sing whatever comes to mind? Do ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘It Is Well’ have less meaning to us because someone else wrote them? Of course not! It isn’t spontaneity that creates spiritual life, it’s the Spirit. And the Spirit can work in a myriad of ways – including through formal prayers.

A Final Word of Encouragement

I hope that, if nothing else, you’re a little more open to the idea of praying pre-written prayers. I want to challenge you to pray the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ for a week. But don’t just recite it and move on. Take the time to meditate on every word. Allow each phrase to bring to mind other thoughts, other praises, other petitions. Move slowly enough through the words that God has the time to speak.

Pray this prayer every day this week and see if, by the end of the week, the rest of your prayer life isn’t better because of it.

I don’t believe you’ll be disappointed.

Sources:

Hardin, L. T. (2016). Prayer. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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[…] And if you’ve never prayed with pre-written prayers, I’d encourage you to consider trying them before writing them off. If nothing else, read the short post I wrote last year in defense of formal prayers. […]

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