Every week the global Church gathers for communal worship. They gather to sing songs of praise, read from the Scriptures, fellowship with the Saints, break bread, hear an exhortation from the Word, and without a doubt Christians always pray when they gather together. And the prayer that is prayed the most in worship services around the world is the Lord ’s Prayer, or the Jesus Prayer. No prayer has been prayed more and more consistently by Christ’s followers than this prayer. In fact, until the Protestant reformation, it was rare, if at all, to find Christians gathering together without praying the Jesus Prayer.
I believe that the Jesus Prayer is still to be the Christian’s primary prayer. I’ll get there in a minute. First, let’s talk about our ancestor’s faith a little bit.
The children of Israel, our descendants, were praying people too. They gathered in the synagogue and the temple for prayer. They quickly developed the tradition to pray either twice a day (morning and evening) or three times a day like Daniel (morning, midday, evening). The Israelites knew that prayer was central to keeping their trust and dependence in God alive.
They composed many prayers to keep them faithful in prayer as a community. The book of Psalms is the community prayer book and hymnal of the ancient Israelites, and all of God’s people today. The fact that a book of prayer is the biggest and most centrally located book of the Christian Bible should attest to the importance of prayer to our faith.
Since the Israelites did not have books they could take home, it was important for them to put prayers to memory. They would memorize biblical psalms but they would also have liturgical prayers like the Shemoneh Esreh, which they would strive to commit to memory. The Shemoneh Esreh was the lengthy “prayer of prayers” of the Jewish people which they prayed in their gatherings. A simpler prayer that was around during the time of Jesus was the Qaddish. It was an ancient Jewish prayer that was no doubt used by the Jews during their individual prayers they prayed 2-3 times per day. It was much simpler to commit to memory
This is how it goes:
“Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world, which he created according to his will. May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole household of Israel, speedily and at a near time.”
Sound familiar? This prayer was daily recited by many Jews along with the Shema. The Qaddish prayer and Shema of Deuteronomy 6 were a “dream team” which aligned the people of God to his will, his way, and his Kingdom. The Qaddish would be familiar to the early followers of Jesus. It is likely that many of them recited the Shema and could very well have prayed the Qaddish along with it 2-3 times per day.
In my last post, we saw that the central teaching of Jesus is what we can call the Jesus Creed, which I borrowed from Scott McKnight’s book by the same title. Jesus’ teachings can be summarized, as he did, as loving God with all we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 12:28-33).
If the Jesus Creed is the key in the ignition then the Jesus Prayer is the fuel. They are to be vital parts of the Christian vehicle. They belong together. The Jesus Creed should be in our minds and the Prayer should be in our hearts. The point is that this central teaching of Jesus, the Jesus Creed, without dependence and trust in God, the Jesus Prayer, will be found unproductive and stale. Truth and prayer must go hand in hand.
Now back to what I said earlier: I want to suggest that the Jesus Prayer is to be the Christian’s primary prayer. Just as the Jesus Creed is Jesus’ primary teaching, not his only teaching, the Jesus Prayer is to be our primary prayer, but not our only prayer. This is not something I am coming up with. As I said before, the Universal Church thought praying this Prayer was central in communal worship for over a century, including in the very early church.
I want us to see the first words of Jesus before he teaches this Prayer. In Matt. 6:9 Jesus says, “This, then, is how you should pray.” Jesus seems to have in mind that this prayer would function as the model prayer for Christian life. Jesus actually gives us the words that we are to pray not just general principles for us to pick and choose. In Luke’s version of this prayer, Jesus says, “When you pray, say…” Jesus had specifically crafted this prayer for use by his disciples.
Jesus thought it was important for his disciple’s prayer life to be shaped by him and his Prayer. If every part of our life is to be dedicated to Jesus why should our prayer life be any less submissive? Why should the prayers of those who strive to model themselves after the life of Jesus also not pray like he did? When we pray the very words of Jesus we are praying how and what Jesus would have us pray. What a beautiful act of love and obedience to pray the Jesus Prayer!
I have felt that our prayers in the Church and in our lives, including mine, have often taken on a character that is unlike what Jesus taught. Our prayers, once again this is me too, can so often focus on our wellbeing, our health, our finances, our family, our country, our church, our jobs, our, our, our, our…. Our prayers can be selfish.
Our prayers shape us and if our prayers are about us then our faith becomes very selfish. I wonder if we were to make Jesus Prayer our primary prayer if we would become less selfish and more sensitive to his will. Would our prayers cease then to be “ours” and become “his?” Prayer has always been about submission, trust, and obedience to God. One of the biblically sanctioned postures of prayer, if not the primary one, is bowing. As we are to submit our lives to God so should we submit our prayers to him as well.
The Jesus Prayer and Jesus Creed are a “dream team” in our spiritual formation. I have decided to make the Jesus Creed and Jesus Prayer a more central part of my faith and daily devotion than I have done so far in my journey. So, I have made a commitment to recite the Jesus Creed and pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and in the evening for 40 days in a row, but I hope it doesn’t stop there.
“Pray like this:
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.”
Reference: Scott McKnight’s book The Jesus Creed has been instrumental in the development of my last two posts. I highly recommend you read it.