It’s a beautiful thing that I can come to God “just as I am,” and that I don’t have to impress him with my intellect and spiritual insight. I certainly don’t want to be like the “Gentiles” that Jesus speaks of, who “heap up empty phrases” and “think they will be heard for their many words.”
But many people from my tradition have taken those truths to mean that all prayer must be original and extemporaneous in order to be sincere, and I believe that they’re missing out on an opportunity to develop depth and breadth in their prayer life.
What is prayer for, after all? Is it to express personal thoughts and desires to God? To cultivate an intimate, personal relationship with him? Yes, of course. With this in mind, I encourage my four-year-old to thank God for pizza and Barney, and I know that God delights in hearing her voice. I pray with my own words, knowing that to heavenly ears, Abby’s and my prayers probably sound about equal in their sophistication.
When left to my own devices, I feel just as John Newton described:
If what I express with my lips were written down, and the thoughts which at the same time are passing through my heart were likewise written between the lines, the whole taken together would be such an absurd and incoherent jumble — such a medley of inconsistency, that it might pass for the ravings of a lunatic.
Newton’s conclusion, of course, is “and yet I pray on,” giving extra thanksgiving to the God who condescends to hear our prayers.
But I believe that my prayers have the capacity not only to be self-expressive but self-formative. And to that end, I’ve found scripted prayers to be an essential tool in teaching me how to pray, how to think, and how to pray beyond my own circumstances.
Praying the words of the Bible (obviously) and of wiser saints enables me to pray with a thoughtfulness and wisdom beyond my own ability. When I pray someone else’s words thoughtfully, I’m not a mindless robot or an affected hypocrite; I’m a child tracing a grownup’s neatly formed letters or learning to dance by balancing on her father’s toes.
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