Most of us know those times when our prayers are little more than sighs, deep heart-aching sighs perhaps—but are they no more than a breath of emptiness?
Scripture shows us when we don’t know what to pray, when we have no words, the Spirit will do “our praying in us and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.” Romans 8:27.
When you find yourself in this frame of mind again, as you most surely will, be assured you are part of that vast multitude of believers and doubters, the followers of Jesus. Even his closest friends asked him to teach them how to pray.
Prayer may at times be as simple as your next breath, yet also, it can seem the hardest thing to do, so we put it off…just for now. I heard a quote which claimed procrastination was really just fear. This can be so, at least in my case, is it yours too?
We sometimes face the prospect ahead of us with no real appetite, yet if we are to experience the reality of our relationship with God, we need to be people who are shaped and formed by prayer. But there can be times when we look at this truth and fear that this time, our prayers will be nothing and meaningless. We dread that we will cast our words up high only to have them drift down like dust —I know we don’t believe this to be the case, but when in this state of mind the problem is our feelings, not our thoughts.
We know he dwells within and is closer than our skin.
We know he loves us more than life itself.
But in those moments we have forgotten the truth, and even our own experience, and can be listening to fear instead, or finding our inner self to be numb and unresponsive. If only we would listen to his voice.
In that moment it can be hard to remember truth, and harder still to form what feels like true expressions of our soul.
At those times more than ever, we can find liberty in praying the prayers of the Church. We can turn the pages of an old worn prayer book and discover words from long ago to guide us along an old worn path. In time those words will lead us into a warmer place, a place where words don’t seem so stilted, they can even seem almost our own, and although written by another person in another time, they are recognisably stirred by The One who indwells us both and so—they fit.
Therefore, when a friend tells me she has no words, I know just how to help her. I have found the words of another, inspired by our Papa, are good for me and will be good for her too. So I show her the way to a path which most of us in the evangelical church have never explored, a path which leads to a river of wisdom from the church of long ago.
To have the path laid out ahead even before you approach the thought, ‘Oh whatever will I pray?’ quiets the fearful thoughts around our ability to pray. It releases us into a wealth of good words, sweet to our tongues and invigorating to our minds, as we pray more widely than we would have found the energy or compassion for.
We will find we have prayed for those we would have thought to…had we been ‘better’ people—but do you know there is truly no condemnation for those who have entered into Christ’s way of life? Perhaps it would be helpful to be reminded of the heart of our Papa when we find we have no words to pray.
I don’t want to whisk words out of their place, so read with me and get a sense of the intent of God for us.
“Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all.
…Instead of redoubling our efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. Those who think they can do it on their own end up being obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God…
The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. (Amazing!!!!!!) He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”
A selection from Romans chapter 8 in The Message by Eugene Peterson
You see, we need have no fear. When we have no words, and even dread that we have no heart either, we can trust the One who indwells us, to help us out of our dreadful dullness and into his precious presence once more. We might need to wait, birth isn’t an instant thing after all. But—He says he will pray for us and in us, and that it doesn’t matter if we have no words.
Imagine that, we are told by God himself that if we are struggling to pray it doesn’t matter, he will help us. Now that is good news.
With grateful hearts, we also want to engage ourselves as best we can to make progress in our journey. We can invest ourselves in different ways and perhaps find our hearts are willing after all, relieved to discover that words a distant one has written can be helpful for even those of us with a weary wordless heart.
Prayers of the church can be found in
The Book of Common Prayer;
The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle;
Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro;
Daily Celtic Prayer: Book One:The Journey Begins; and more besides, but these will help you as you go forward.
As I read authors and listened to speakers who were more familiar with this way of praying, I found there was much that I’d missed out on, I was excited to embark on a new way of praying.
I began with The Divine Hours, I don’t mean to imply I’ve moved on from them, but simply that is where I began on my journey with written prayers. I found them rich, and in time discovered they were filling me up with good words. The Ann Arbor Vineyard Church website has The Divine Hours set out for each day, fresh prayers for each of the four points in the day the Benedictines gather to pray.
This rhythm of prayer has become a framework for many, knowing they’re praying with the church around the world, same words, same time, same family, akin to gathering for a meal. I found I liked using the written prayers, but wanted more in the morning for when I could sit quietly and had time to take longer, so taking on board what I’d learnt from Brian Zahnd: Pastor of Word of Life Church, St Joseph, Missouri; and Ed Cwyzeski: Writer and Contemplative, I have a rhythm for the mornings, I grew into a person who appreciates praying the prayers of the church.
As written prayers can lead us where we wouldn’t go alone, how about we travel this journey together, would you like that?
This is my simple prayer track, it’s not as involved as some I’ve come across, and it isn’t what I always use, but I do find it helpful, perhaps you might too.
The Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Psalm for the day:
Read through the book of Psalms one each day, just following on from where you left off if you miss any, read aloud as a prayer. Read them with the awareness of the nature of Jesus, self-giving, co-suffering, sacrificially loving, ‘God-with-us’, not a vengeful riotous distant entity. Remember, God looks like Jesus, and he always has.
Scripture for the week:
Reading the same gospel account each day for a week will imprint details in you that you wouldn’t necessarily notice from one reading, this is more fruitful than you imagine.
Confession of the Apostle’s Creed:
This short declaration of truth is core to the beliefs of the Church and it is useful to remind ourselves of regularly, it isn’t a long involved theological tome, nor does it need to be.
Psalm 23 NLT:
Daily reminding yourself that you are a welcome guest of Jesus is good for the soul.
The Lord’s Prayer:
The best written prayer of all!
By now you will find you have more words than you thought, so you will be able to pray with more ease.
Prayer for the week:
This can be found on the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church website: Resources: The Divine Hours.
The Jesus Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.