Opposition to Pre-Written Prayers Comes From the Spirit of the Age (Developing a Consistent Prayer Life Part 2)

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In my experience, whether talking to evangelicals or charismatics (or evangelical-charismatics), there seems to be a fairly strong opposition to using pre-written forms in either corporate or personal prayer. By this I am mostly referring to using prayers written by someone else. Even more specifically, I am speaking of using something akin to the historic structured liturgies of daily prayer that have been used in religious communities from time immemorial. It is my contention that this opposition is based both on faulty logic and presuppositions that have much more to do with the spirit of the age (zeitgeist) than apostolic Christianity. Since for the most part the “proof of the pudding is in the eating,” seeing how simple it is to acquire the twelve benefits I laid out in the last post (easy, consistent, diverse, deep, rich in content, broadly-biblical, non-idiosyncratic, Christ-centered, historically-rooted, well-rounded, manageable and profoundly moving) will ultimately be the best reason for someone to use pre-written prayers and forms to aid their prayer life. However, I want to briefly deal with the primary objection I’ve heard over the years (and I myself once espoused) to using written prayers. The objection essentially goes something like one of the following:

“If I use a pre-written prayer, it couldn’t be authentic…”

“It’s not something that is really from my heart…”

“It wouldn’t be a personal relationship between me and God anymore…”

The assumption here is that the central criterion for “good prayer” is that it must be an authentic expression of my innermost self.  Indeed, this criterion has been so exalted that it overpowers all the criteria I laid out in my previous post rendering them inconsequential. Thus expressing your innermost self (or your perception of your innermost self) trumps prayer that is consistent, deep, rich in content, broadly-biblical, Christ-centered, historically-rooted, etc. The notion that this is the paramount criterion for “real/good prayer” and is thus incompatible with pre-written forms is flawed in at least two ways.

1) LOGIC – The notion that pre-written forms cannot be authentic is an idea that almost no Christian actually believes, so it is a marvel to me that this argument is even employed. Let me explain. This past Sunday, in every church around the world, whether they were the most traditional, or the most charismatic, people used pre-written prayers to “express their hearts” to God. They were, however, in songs. Although I have regularly enjoyed and still do enjoy singing songs in both corporate and private settings that either I personally wrote in advance or made up on the spot, I have never been in a worship setting where all the songs the congregation sang were spontaneous. Even if that does happen somewhere, the congregation would still be using a form written by someone else.

I have never heard someone attempt to argue that they cannot sing worship songs or hymns written by someone else because they cannot possibly use them to give an “authentic expression of their innermost self” to God. This is because we all know that it is more than possible to express ourselves to God using someone else’s words. In fact, we do it all the time. More so, we frequently find that someone else can put into words, what our innermost self has been wanting to say but has not been able to express.

We also express ourselves to God through another’s words every time we agree with someone else’s prayer. We didn’t come up with those words, someone else did. They were not a spontaneous eruption from our hearts, yet when we say “Amen” we all acknowledge that the other’s words can be an authentic and meaningful way for us to pray to God. If they were not, then we would eschew all corporate prayer, an abstention that no one in the early apostolic community maintained.

2) BIBLICAL/HISTORICAL – Now that I’ve shown nearly all people do in fact believe it is possible to “authentically express your innermost self” to God through texts written by someone else, I would now like to go further by questioning this notion as a central criterion for judging quality prayer. Pause for a second and ask yourself if you ever remember Jesus, the apostles, the prophets, or anyone else in Scripture ever talk about the necessity for the “authentic expression of my innermost self.” It probably won’t take you long to realize that none of them ever do. (Even when there is gut-wrenching heart expression (for example, say, in the Psalms or Lamentations), it is WRITTEN down and intended for others to use as their own form).

If the Bible does not hold up the supreme necessity of “authentic self-expression” then why is this almost a universal, immediate response to the notion of using pre-written prayers in contemporary North-American Evangelical Protestantism? Where is this value and its priority coming from? I guess I already gave it away in the title of this post – it comes from the spirit of the age, to be more precise, the spirit of the age from 1800-1950ish. I am particularly meaning two specific movements of late modern culture: Romanticism and Existentialism.

The Romantic movement of the early 19th century responded to the extreme rationalism of the Enlightenment (late 17th and 18th century), and indeed they were right to do so. Rather they said, the “heart” was the central concern. Notice how such talk could easily be crowded into the same room with Isaiah, Amos and Deuteronomy’s  emphasis on the “heart” and opposition to “outward forms” lacking internal reality. To risk oversimplifying an entire cultural movement, the Romantics encouraged one to look inward, to discover the feelings that are inside of you and make them the center of your life, not least your self-expression. This was codified in Christian thought by F.D.E. Schleiermacher who said that “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech” (The Christian Faith). Notice the subtle difference between Romanticism and the Scripture. Deuteronomy says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” while Romanticism says “have loving feelings” and Romantic-inspired theology says “let us describe our loving feelings about God.” In Biblical religion, the object of the love is central, whereas in romanticism-inspired theology, the feeling is central and the object ancillary (In his lengthy treatment of Christian theology, Schleiermacher said “this Other [meaning God] is not objectively presented in the immediate self-consciousness with which alone we are here concerned,” i.e., we’re mostly concerned with the feelings in our self-consciousness, not God).

This brings us to the largely 20th century phenomenon of existentialism (although its harbinger Kierkegaard appeared on the scene in the mid-19th century). Amongst other things, existentialism sought to highlight that each person has a “true self” of authentic existence which must be searched for, found, freed and given full expression. Like romanticism, there are ways this language can be layered within and around the Biblical text (As R. Bultmann aptly demonstrated, for better or for worse). Again, it is subtly different than what the Scripture is in fact saying. Rather than being confronted by and conformed to something larger than and external to ourselves, we must “discover who we really are” and then be true to that authentic self. Growth is not as much a process of conversion and transformation as it is discovery and realization of what was always there within me. Akin to Romanticism, Biblical faith emphasizes an external relationship, the zeitgeist, an inward journey.

From this brief historical lesson, I think it becomes clear where a lot of this talk about “authentic expression from my heart” derives its modern origins. At least in the ways it is often used, it is not coming from the Bible. Sure, Biblical verses are employed, but Romanticist and Existentialist interpretations and applications of those verses. If these passages are in fact explaining how the center of prayer is discovering what is really in my heart and then authentically expressing it to God in my own personally unique way, it is funny how nearly the entire tradition of Jewish and Christian prayer missed that, including the earliest records we have of the church immediately following the writing of the New Testament. When the apostles asked Jesus how to pray, he didn’t give them instructions on how to focus or how to tune into the Spirit really hard. Nor did he tell them to divide up into groups and discuss their personal story and emote what is bubbling up from their inner recesses. He did not lead them in a journey of inward discovery and affirmation. He certainly did not encourage them to abandon forms and structures of spirituality, since his answer was to give them a set of words they can say, which is now known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” It is commonly asserted that the Lord’s Prayer was not a “form,” (predicated on the assumption we already know religious forms are bad!) but a suggestion of the topics one can pray about. It’s fine to use it that way, but that is not what Jesus was doing. Luke’s text is very clear in this manner. It says quite literally, “whenever you pray, SAY: ‘Father…’” (Luke 11:2). Jesus’ central advice on prayer is to have a specific pattern and form of words to “say” “whenever you pray.” Whatever we make of this, it certainly was miles away from what a Romanticist/Existentialist might recommend.

Now don’t get me wrong. As a good product of my time I think “expressing what’s really in my heart” is important and I personally cherish the numerous times I have been able to do so. But it is not central, and it is certainty not the starting place of prayer. If prayer begins with and finds its locus in “expressing my heart,” it would seem to be right on track to transmogrify from a noble and beautiful practice into an ugly and horrid introspective navel-gazing. I know plenty of this from my personal experience. On the contrary, Christian prayer begins with our eyes fixed on God (rather than our emotions) and the Scripture (rather than our own creativity/authenticity), while rooted in Church history (rather than our own idiosyncrasy). What I’ve found is this type of heart-posture, coupled with the method of prayer that I’ll outline in my next post, has led to a significant increase in the regularity of profoundly moving and authentically expressive experiences with the Lord, over the whole gamut of emotions.

While my personal experience is not your own, for me it illustrates the futility and lack of credibility contained within Romanticist and Existentialist applications of Scripture. The difference is stark. When Isaiah rebukes Israel using words like “I hate your festivals,” etc., or Jesus speaks of the Pharisees’ honoring God with their words, but their hearts being far away, or Paul might speak of the liberty of the Spirit, the Existentialist or Romanticist might condemn the use of forms, structures or patterns in worship and prayer. The solution to a dull spiritual experience is the inward search and liberation from “religious forms.” In reality, this analysis is incredibly shallow. Isaiah makes clear the issue is not forms but faithfulness to Yahweh (Isa. 1:12-17). Paul transparently states the law is good and spiritual (Rom. 7:12, 14). I also find it hard to believe that Jesus specifically condemned the forms of Jewish liturgy considering the early church continued to take part in this worship after the Ascension and even after Pentecost (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:42, 46; 3:1). The Existentialist would tell me I need to prioritize authenticity, self-expression and freedom from forms, but I have found that concerted faithfulness to God, attentiveness to his Word and commitment to structured rhythms of prayer is the context within which I have experienced more acute self-awareness, greater freedom in self-expression and deeper religious affections than I have at any previous time in my life. Using pre-written structures and liturgies have dramatically transformed my prayer life for the better, and enabled me to obtain a spirituality that is “easy, consistent, diverse, deep, rich in content, broadly-biblical, non-idiosyncratic, Christ-centered, historically-rooted, well-rounded, manageable and profoundly moving” (see the previous post for an explanation of all these components).

In my next post I will outline what this specifically looks like for me in my practice of daily prayer.

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6 Responses to Opposition to Pre-Written Prayers Comes From the Spirit of the Age (Developing a Consistent Prayer Life Part 2)

  1. Ben Varner says:

    This series has been most excellent – a real answer to prayer! Praise God!

  2. Kristy says:

    Nice work Richard. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  3. Pingback: On the Road to Emmaus » My Personal Prayer Action Plan (Developing a Consistent Prayer Life Part 3)

  4. Chris says:

    Your analysis of the influence of existentialism and romanticism really hit the nail on the head, I think.

    I learned that praying “my heart” wasn’t cutting it when I was deployed to Iraq for a year. My heart didn’t say much besides, “I want to go home.” ;-)

  5. Cynthia says:

    This especially true because our Lord said to pray continually and that if the unjust judge rewards the one who continually seeks him about something in particular why wouldn’t he. So a planned out or written prayer is effective, with right motives and evident faith, of course.

    On the movie Bruce Almighty, at the end, “God” tells Jim Carrey to pray what he really wanted or what was on his heart and at the time I was moved by it but I have a little more understanding now because the heart is deceitful above all things.

  6. Pingback: Religion is Not a Bad Word | On the Road to Emmaus

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