Resurrected Living
"What are you going to do with your new resurrected life? This is the heroic question." Richard Rohr

How to Pray

If you examine how professing Christians pray, you discover there is a divide. When people gather in houses of worship to pray, they do so in two distinct ways.  

One side will use very beautiful, sometimes very ancient, prayers that have been passed down for generations. Some of these prayers are from the Bible. Some of them are from faithful believers who lived long ago. Some of these prayers are inspired. Others are well thought out. They are printed or memorized and people pray them together. 

The other side prays meaningful prayers that are not memorized or written down. A person goes to the front of the congregation and leads everyone in a prayer that is comprised at that moment. These prayers often contain specific concerns that are on people’s minds at that moment. It may include something in the news or a list of people in the congregation who need are prayers.  

Most people have grown up with one way of praying or the other. We believe that whatever way we grew up praying is the right way. Most of us have never tried the other way. We have never explored how it might be meaningful.  

There are critiques of both ways of praying. People who use memorized or written down prayers are sometimes accused of worship that is rote. People are accused of going through the motions and not worshiping from the heart. The other side is accused of prayers that lack depth. They are not as well thought out as prayers that have been tested and tried over the ages. A person may forget what to say or say the wrong thing.  

Before we look at Scripture, let’s think through some of these issues. What about rote prayers? Let’s first acknowledge that a prayer doesn’t have to be written down in order to be rote. When someone gets up to pray without any notes, they often repeat what they have heard before. How many times have you heard the phrase “guide, guard, and direct” used in a prayer? Where did it come from? It is a rote phrase that has been repeated numerous times in prayers over the years. There are others. Praying without notes doesn’t guarantee our prayers will not become rote.  

What does the word rote mean? It means routine or habitual. In other words, rote is a habit. It is something we do over and over again. Where do we get the idea that rote is wrong? There are no Bible verses condemning rote prayers. In fact, the opposite is true. There are many passages that encourage Biblical habits and routines. One of the most famous is found in Deuteronomy 6.  

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Jesus did not shy away from this practice. He did not tell people to stop these habits.  Instead, he called this passage the greatest command. He encouraged us to continue in this tradition.  

Rote is not wrong. It just depends on how we approach it. Guide, guard, and direct can become more rote than the Lord’s prayer if we aren’t praying with our whole heart. We need to mean the words we pray whether they are written down or not.

We know that Scripture tell us to pray, but what does Scripture teach us about how to pray? First, we should understand that we are not alone when we want to know how to pray. In Luke 11, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him “Lord, teach us to pray.” These were adults. They had grown up attending worship. They had grown up hearing the Bible read, and they wanted to know how to pray. Jesus’ reply is interesting. He says “When you pray, say:” This is followed by the Lord’s prayer. In Luke, Jesus teaches us to repeat his words. He teaches us to pray the prayer he gives us. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are following Jesus and obeying his command.

Jesus gives us another example when he is on the cross. As he is dying, he prays. What does he pray? These are his prayers.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)

Why these prayers? Where did they come from? Jesus did not come up with these words on the spot. They were prayers he likely prayed before. They were prayers that he had committed to memory. They come from the book of Psalms.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

“Into your hand I commit my spirit.” (Psalm 31:5)

Jesus’ prayer book was the book of Psalms. Again, if we want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we will learn to pray the Psalms.

What about the early church? What did they do? Acts 2:42 offers some insight. This is a familiar verse to some, but it is not always translated the same way. Notice how the American Standard 1901, probably the most literal translation produced, translates it.

“And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, ASV)

The ESV offers a similar translation.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, ESV)

The word that is sometimes missing is the word “the.” We don’t always pay attention to the little words because they are little, but they can be quite important. For instance, saying Christians devoted themselves to prayer is not the same as saying Christians devoted themselves to THE prayers. This raises a question. What prayers? The people of God had used prayers for many years to guide them and help them in their prayer life. They made a habit of praying the Psalms and other prayers. What we see is that the early church continued in this tradition. We know this from the Didache and other early Christian documents. The early church practiced regular times of prayer. They added the Lord’s prayer to the list of prayers they prayed.

What does all this mean for us? What does it mean for how we are to pray? The divide between praying written and memorized prayers and praying what is on our heart in the moment is wrong. There should not be a divide. We need both kinds of prayers. The Bible doesn’t favor one way of praying over another. It teaches us that both are important.  

Here’s how we miss out. What is the purpose of prayer? It is to communicate with God. It is also to shape and form who we are. This is why Jesus gives us specific words to pray. It is how Jesus can face temptation in the desert and agony on the cross. He was formed by his prayer life. When we engage the Lord’s prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the beatitudes, and other prayers in Scripture on a daily basis, it is going to impact who we are. It will influence us in a positive way. It will help shape us into the person we ought to be. 

One of the reasons many of us feel inadequate in our prayer life is because we have never been taught. We were told to pray and never shown how. If we want to get good at something we must practice. When we practice, we learn fundamentals and we repeat them over and over again. We may copy someone who exemplifies proper technique. We watch them. We study them. We imitate them. We do this over and over again. Eventually, it becomes natural to us and we develop our own style. This is true of sports, cooking, music, woodworking, and many other things. Why would we expect it to be any different when it comes to prayer? We need to spend time with the prayers we find in the Bible. We need to pray the great prayers of the past because it helps us learn how to pray.

We become great at prayer when we know the Lord’s prayer so well, we can pray our own version of it. It is a part of who we are. It is ingrained in our mind and soul. It has helped create us into the person we are today. It just comes out of us without even thinking. We become great at prayer when we practice the prayers of Scripture and the ancient prayers over and over again. We learn how to pray when we imitate the prayers of others.  

The two types of prayer are not opposed to one another. They go hand in hand. We memorize prayers and use written prayers to help us pray better. We use them so we are transformed through the act of praying.

If you are frustrated with your prayer life, let me encourage you to do something. Set aside a time of prayer each day. It could be in the morning. It could be in the evening. Whatever is convenient for you. Commit to praying at that time for 40 days. Attached at the bottom of this post is a daily routine for prayer. It includes reciting the 23rd psalm, the Lord’s prayer, and the beatitudes. In the middle of this, there is a space for you to pray what is in on your heart. Try it for 40 days. It might be uncomfortable or awkward at first, but stick with it.  Keep doing it.  

If after 40 days your prayer life isn’t any better, then go back to what you were doing. I suspect many of you will see a positive change. I suspect your prayer life will improve. Most importantly, I suspect you will draw closer to God. We want an intimate relationship with God and it can happen through prayer. 

Daily Prayers

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