A new Facebook friend recently posted a question on my wall. She said she was enjoying praying the Jesus Prayer, but found an objection creeping up in the back of her mind: Isn’t this the kind of thing Jesus told us not to do?
One of the really fun things about writing a book is hearing from people who have read it. Especially if they liked it. Maybe only if they liked it. Anyway, since my book (Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers) is about finding ways to pray that really fit our needs, it is fantastic to hear when somebody is enjoying a centuries-old way of praying that is brand new to them. But what if Scripture seems to present an obstacle?
Here’s the verse in full:
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)
Here’s the Jesus Prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
If the Jesus Prayer is new to you here’s what you need to know. This is a classic approach to prayer from the Orthodox tradition. You pray these phrases, these ten words, over and over, along with your breath. When you really go for it it is a way to do what the Apostle Paul told the Thessalonians to do:
“Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
So, is this what Jesus warned us against? It is a frequent response to the use of the Jesus prayer, at least among Protestants, and especially among those with a strong Bible training.
However, I do not think the Jesus Prayer fits Jesus’ description at all. Two reasons:
First, Matthew 6:7 tells people not to not “heap up empty phrases” or avoid “meaningless repetition” or “babbling” depending on your translation. Look closely and you find the words of the Jesus Prayer are not “empty phrases,” and certainly not “meaningless.” The words are a combination of biblical names for our Lord and prayers from key scenes in the Gospels.
- Repetition? Yes.
- Meaningless? No.
- Babbling? Not if you mean what you are asking.
And we really should mean what we are asking, since the God’s mercy given in Christ is the very heart of the Gospel.
So why the repetition? Two reasons again:
First, because we always need God’s mercy. I’ve heard Protestants object to praying the Jesus Prayer saying,
“But I already received God’s mercy!”
Yes, when you are forgiven and start the journey of faith it is all mercy. But then you still need mercy every single day. Every time God answers our prayer it is yet another example of mercy — an undeserved gift, given just because we need it and God loves us. As the old hymn, and the one central joyful passage of Lamentations tell us, God’s mercies are new every single morning.
Second, because praying the Jesus Prayer shapes us in a good way. Every time we say the Jesus Prayer it puts our hearts and minds back in the right place before Jesus: He is our Lord, the Christ or Messiah, the Son of God. We are his humble servants. We bring nothing to him but our need, and we ask him for help.
If in prayer we return again and again to this place of true worship, we begin to live from that place of humble love — and our lives once again revolve around the God to whom our lives belong in the first place.
Have you ever tried praying the Jesus Prayer? What was it like?
If not, what holds you back?