Prayer is meant to be simple – right? Just a helpless, trusting child talking to a loving Father in heaven. No fancy words needed, no magical techniques required, no limits on what we can pray about.
So if that’s true, is there a place for actually working at the content of our prayers? Does it matter what we pray for, or how we pray? Or is it more godly for our prayers to remain in a state of spiritual infancy, lest we try to impress God with our words?
Like most things in the Christian walk, a life of prayer is caught more than it’s taught. Over the next couple of days, we’ll look at what the Bible teaches us about the content of our prayers – how the model prayer of Jesus teaches us, and how the examples of Paul’s prayers shape our understanding. But for today, let’s think about something that, for most of us, has probably gone well and truly out of fashion: using formulaic prayers.
The very word ‘formulaic’ repels most of us. It sounds stodgy, negative, like something from a stuffy, bygone era. But if we choose our formulaic prayers well, there is incredible blessing and richness to be gained by using the pre-packaged prayers of others. We can also learn to pray well publicly- not that public prayer requires great eloquence, but it should be filled with biblical content and priorities that will teach and edify our listeners.
Let me offer two examples. The Book of Common Prayer is perhaps the greatest thing about the tradition of Anglicanism (my own denominational background). Though first written hundreds of years ago, the BCP contains rich, Bible-saturated prayers that will edify and help any believer who’s struggling to pray on their own. My favourite prayer is this confession, to be said by God’s people before they share ‘holy communion’. Get past the old school language and soak this in:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Who would understand the gravity of their sin, and appreciate God’s mercy more: someone who prays that prayer, or a churchgoer who hears someone pray, “Dear God, sorry for all the times we’ve stuffed up this week’?
Second, let me introduce you to the Puritans, and the wonderful book The Valley of Vision. A few years ago at CMS Summer School in Katoomba, I was wonderfully encouraged to hear Mike Raiter (the main speaker at the Conference) commend this book. We sing other people’s songs and read other people’s books, he pointed out, but why don’t we think to use other people’s prayers? The Valley of Vision is a magnificent resource, a collection of around 200 Bible-shaped prayers covering every part of life. It will inform your understanding of God and his gospel, but which will also help you to pray when you don’t know how to pray, or when the words just aren’t coming. And we’ve all been there.
Here’s just one example – a prayer of ‘Morning Dedication’:
Almighty God, as I cross the threshold of this day I commit myself, soul, body, affairs, friends, to Thy care. Watch over, keep, guide, direct, sanctify, bless me. Incline my heart to thy ways. Mould me wholly into the image of Jesus, as a potter forms clay. May my lips be a well-tuned harp to sound Thy praise.
Let those around see me living by Thy Spirit, trampling the world underfoot, unconformed to lying vanities, transformed by a renewed mind, clad in the entire armour of God, shining as a never-dimmed light, showing holiness in all my doings.
Let no evil this day soil my thoughts, words, hands. May I travel miry paths with a life pure from spot or stain. In needful transactions let my affection be in heaven, and my love soar upwards in flames of fire, my gaze fixed on unseen things, my eyes open to the emptiness, fragility, mockery of earth and its vanities.
May I view all things in the mirror of eternity, waiting for the coming of my Lord, listening for the last trumpet call, hastening unto the new heaven and earth. Order this day all my communications according to Thy wisdom, and to the gain of mutual good.
Forbid that I should not be profited or made profitable. May I speak each word as if my last word, and walk each step as my final one. If my life should end today, let this be my best day.