For many years, I have utilized written prayers to help me in my prayer life, but I did not grow up using written prayers. In many evangelical spaces, there is a suspicion of written prayers. They are viewed as inauthentic and "going through the motions". On the other hand, extemporaneous prayers are considered expressions of genuine faith. I think it is necessary to our spiritual lives to pray personal prayers arising from our own life and faith. Yet I also think written prayers are good tools for our prayer lives. In this post, I will briefly explain why I think so. I will give two biblical arguments in defense of them, briefly address the authenticity argument, and sketch why I think they can be helpful for our life with God when supplementing our personal prayers.
I believe there are two primary biblical arguments we can use to defend written prayers. The first is when Jesus was asked by His first disciples how to pray in Luke 11:1, He gave them a model prayer to use. The more famous wording is in Matthew 6:9-11 KJV: "Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen." When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He did not provide some general guidelines. Instead, He provided a specific prayer to use, one they could memorize, recite, and use as an outline for developing their own prayers that followed His model.
A second biblical argument is similar. Not only did Jesus give us a written prayer, but the longest book of the Bible is simply a record of prayers and songs, the book of Psalms. Since the completion of the Psalms, the Jewish faith and the Christian Church have consistently used the words of these prayers to pray in public worship services and in private. We have a collection of divinely inspired prayers, not simply as a series of case studies to look at and dissect, but as prayers we can use to shape our prayer lives according to these scriptural prayers.
But is it inauthentic to pray using someone else's words? Isn't it more authentic to pray about what is on our hearts? The idea of this criticism is valid. We want people to express the vibrant faith they possess, not merely go through the motions of reciting words and forgetting about them. That would be a misuse of written prayers. While this criticism is a good reminder of how written prayers can be misused, I find it as an argument against all written prayers to be weak. Simply, Christians all over the world, without exception, sing words that were written by others as part of worship services. Worship songs, whether they are exclusively from the Psalms, old hymns sung by a choir, or modern praise choruses are someone else's words we sing to express our worship of God. The only difference between singing songs and praying written prayers is that one involves music while the other does not. For even the sharpest critics of written prayers, the criticism disappears when a melody and chord progression is involved. If we all agree singing songs corporately is an authentic expression of worship, then it would be inconsistent to suggest that speaking written prayers is automatically inauthentic. It is only inauthentic if we fail to pay attention to the words we are saying and are cognizant of how these words give voice to God particular areas of our lives.
So what role can written prayers play in our prayer lives? I do not think we should exclusively use written prayers. Praying out of our emotions, needs, and desires is a good practice. Extemporaneous and written prayers are not opposed to each other in a vibrant prayer life. Written prayers can stretch us, encourage us to pray in ways that are helpful for our faith that we might not think to pray on our own, and teach us how to pray. We can rely on the prayer Jesus gave us and the words of the Psalms. We can also use prayers written by Christians reflecting on Scripture. They had vibrant prayer lives. Countless prayer books have been tried, tested, and revised to match Scripture and rich theology. There are prayers by Catholic saints and Puritans. These prayers come from the shared wisdom of the church, from people who lived their lives with God long before us and can show us what our prayer lives could be. And so many come from the very words of Scripture inspired by God.
One of my favorite prayers comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen." (p. 355).
I still struggle with a certain amount of anxiety about whether or not God loves me, whether or not He is pleased with me, and whether or not He is on my side. I don't easily feel safe opening up the most anxious and depressed parts of myself. I don't easily have my own words for being vulnerable with God. So I find this prayer helpful. It gives me words that don't arise naturally from my fallen heart to open myself up to Him.
The Psalms give me countless examples of prayers expressing the deepest anxieties to God and even looming doubts about whether or not God is on our side. I find these words give me words to pray when it feels hard to express my doubts to God. Psalm 13 stands out as my favorite.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me (NRSVA).
When I struggle with doubt, these Psalms also give me words of hope that God will come through and can be trusted. The same Psalm gives me words to express my doubts when I feel afraid and provides words to express hope when I do not feel very hopeful. It teaches me to pray in rich ways I cannot always pray by myself.
So I encourage you to pick up the Psalms and a prayer book. Pray prayers that were written by others to teach you new ways to pray, give you new words to speak to God, and teach you what your prayers could look like. Then pray and write some of your own.
In the comments below, what prayers have you prayed that have most grown your own prayer life? What thoughts do you have about using written prayers in your life? What questions do you still have about them?