Thoughts on Prayer: Pre-Written or Spontaneous Prayers?

When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, I was taught how to pray some specific prayers. The first was The Lord’s Prayer, which in the New Testament (in the CSB) goes like this:

Our Father in heaven,
your name be honored as holy.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13

There was also the Gloria Patri. This prayer is also a part of the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer.

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Amen.

Gloria Patri (Glory Be to the Father)

I remember saying this prayer regularly during my bedtime prayers as a child.

But for most of my adult Christian life, I have not used pre-written prayers or prayed only using the words of The Lord’s Prayer. This is because I became a committed follower of Jesus in university through the influence of evangelicals. I was taught, therefore (often by example), to pray from the heart. That is, to come before God with my own words, to pray spontaneously.

Often, Christians think we should pray one way or the other. Those from a more high-church or liturgical tradition (Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans) maintain the value and importance of prayers that are essentially “given” to us. We should make use of and personalize pre-written prayers. Those, however, from the free-church or evangelical traditions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans) emphasize spontaneous prayers. More, they often see pre-written prayers as rote, as prayers that can be spoken without the person really praying.

So how should we pray? Does it have to be one or the other?

For instance, when it comes to The Lord’s Prayer, did Jesus intend his disciples to pray those words verbatim? I appreciate theologian Karl Barth, who in his wonderful little book Prayer, puts it this way: “Be content with possessing in the Lord’s Prayer a model, but let your prayer arise from the fieedom of the heart.” I think Barth puts it beautifully, and in doing so addresses the respective concerns of both those who emphasize pre-written prayers and those who emphasize spontaneous prayers.

You see, I think here is a difference between Jesus teaching his disciples, including us, the words to pray and the way to pray. The words he gives in The Lord’s Prayer show us the way. He is teaching us what to pray for and how we ought to prioritize our prayers. However, I daresay we can pray with these words without praying in the way he taught us. We can do it simply by rote without really thinking about the words. We can do it without heart.

On the other hand, one weakness of only ever praying spontaneously is that we often immediately jump to our concerns or worries or needs. Our tendency is to focus on our problems–or the problems of people we know–without ever really giving time for what is on God’s heart and how that should make its way into our prayers. I remember one pastor saying that people often only pray for “stomachs and steering wheels,” referring to health issues and what we call “traveling mercies.” And although God certainly invites us to bring all of our concerns to him in prayer, I think he also wants us to do so within the larger framework of the story he is telling all throughout Scripture.

Notice that even in The Lord’s Prayer, only after teaching us to pray for God’s glory, kingdom, and will does Jesus teach us to pray for our daily bread and everyday needs. Maybe there’s a good reason for that. I think there is.

In making use of the Daily Office in my devotions for the last few months, I have been making use of the pre-written prayers in it as well. One of them is the confession of sin:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and apart from your grace, there is no health in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all those who confess their faults. Restore all those who are penitent, according to your promises declared to all people in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may now live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of your holy Name. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Now, let me ask: How often to do you hear pastors praying words anything like this on a Sunday morning? How often do we pray like this in the privacy of our own hearts? Yet isn’t forgiveness, repentance, and the confession of sin a pretty basic aspect of discipleship?

Here’s the thing: What’s important are not the words of pre-written prayers but rather the spiritual realities to which they point us. Without such reminding, I think we would simply overlook some of these basic spiritual realities, like the need for confession (individually and corporately). Indeed, I think there are some key aspects to a praying life that are almost entirely absent from the lives of most believers and the worship of most congregations.

Let me put it this way: Praying only from the heart when the heart is not being sufficiently instructed and trained in how to pray can lead to a self-centred and narrow prayer life.

Just because we’re followers of Jesus doesn’t mean we know how to pray. Consider the context in Luke’s Gospel for Jesus giving the words of The Lord’s Prayer to his disciples:

He was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples. He said to them, “Whenever you pray, say,”

Luke 11:1-2

Jesus’ disciples asked him for help in praying. They wanted to pray like he prayed. They needed instruction. Are we so different?

I think pre-written prayers, even if we only use them as a starting point for our spontaneous prayers, remind us to pray in ways that we might otherwise neglect or forget, ways integral to growing in our living out of the good news of Jesus.

So, I submit, it’s neither one nor the other. Those who are seeking to love God and follow in his ways need both pre-written prayers and spontaneous prayers. Our prayers need both heart and direction, and making use of both ways of praying, allowing them to inform each other, provides what we need.

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