When it comes to prayer, you’ll notice that different traditions have different tendencies. Some of a more liturgical background will literally have set prayers that are either read or memorized. These prayers were carefully constructed years ago and have a concise precision. These churches often place a high value on what Christian history has to offer and consider it an honor to keep alive traditions that often times connect them to centuries of believers.
On the other end you have churches where prayer is almost entirely spontaneous. Emphasis is put on the movement of the Holy Spirit here and now, as well as the fact that prayer is about a personal relationship with God.
In all likelihood, most of your prayer lives don’t live in either extreme, but fluctuate back and forth on the spectrum. Some likely have times where their prayer is at least a little structured, such as a routine of praying before meals or a commitment to pray for your family everyday. Some likely often follow a simple formula, such as the popular ACTS acronym: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. I’ve seen some Christians that are extremely structured in their prayer life with topics picked out for each day.
The question I want to look at is what each of these can contribute to your prayer life and why you should consider incorporating elements of each.
One of the benefits of highly structured prayer is that it can help you to pray in situations where you don’t really feel like it and might have otherwise failed to do so. Because you have something specific you know you want to say, you tend to follow through on praying much more often than you would otherwise.
One of the advantages of the very most structured variety of prayers, namely pre-written prayers, is that they give you words to say that you mean when you can’t find the words.
In Biblical terms, the Lord’s prayer is a good example of a structured prayer. Whether you think Jesus meant for us to recite the prayer word-for-word or he just gave it as a template, the fact is that it is a prayer that you didn’t come up with that you have likely either recited or modeled other prayers after.
Here is the prayer:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil
Like most structured prayer, this prayer is extremely short and to the point. God’s kingship is recognized, four things are asked of him (or five depending on if you ungroup the last two requests). The first request of God is God-centered, namely that his will be done. The next three deal with us, providing for our needs, forgiving ours sins, and keeping us from temptation/evil.
I grew up in an Episcopal church, and though I’ve moved into a much more conservative theological position than that church holds, many of the prayers continue to resonate with me. One prayer stands out in particular: the confession of sin. We used to say this every single Sunday and I still often recite it word-for-word during my prayer times. Here is the prayer as I pray it (which I think is word-for-word accurate with how it appears in Rite II of the book of common prayer, aside from changing “we” to “I,” but it is from memory so you never know):
Most merciful God,
I confess that I have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what I have done and by what I have left undone.
I have not loved you with my whole heart,
I have not loved my neighbor as myself.
I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.
For the sake of your son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on me and forgive me,
that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways
to the glory of your name,
One of the things I struggle with is turning to God with my sin, especially when it seems like I keep failing in the same area over and over. This prayer has been a tremendous blessing where it gives me the words to say to get me started, and then I name my sins to God and ask for forgiveness. What a blessing this prayer has been to me.
The line that has always stood out most to me is “that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways.” What a powerful line. I don’t want to be forgiven merely to have my wrongs covered, I want to then delight in God’s will and not in sin and walk in a way that pleases him and maximizes my joy. For me that’s a game-changing line. I mentioned before that I recite this whole prayer often, but even when I don’t this line shows up regularly in my prayers.
Prayer doesn’t have to be structured though; sometimes you can just talk to God and tell him what is on your mind. The advantages of this type of prayer is that it facilitates an active relationship between yourself and God and is flexible enough to cover whatever you are going through.
Biblically speaking, my favorite spontaneous prayers come from the example of Nehemiah. When Nehemiah learns that the wall of the city of Jerusalem is broken and that the gates are burned down, his response is to fast and pray (Nehemiah 1:4). His prayer (verses 5-11) is a genuine, heartfelt reaction to the state of his people and their city. There is an honest confession of the sin of his people, and a request for God to be with him as he approaches the king to ask to rebuild the wall.
The contents of his next prayer aren’t given, but it’s an equally strong example of spontaneous prayer. Right in the middle of his conversation with the king, the king asks him what he is requesting and before he answers, he prays (Nehemiah 2:4). This is about as spontaneous as it gets; your right in the middle of a conversation and you realize you need the Lord’s help so you fire off a quick prayer. This was probably like the prayer equivalent of a tweet or a text. Just a short, sweet piece of communication.
Spontaneous prayer is the go-to style of prayer when you know you have something on your heart, something burning and needing to come out.
What can you learn from this?
More than anything, I hope that this post causes you to reflect on your prayer life and to brainstorm ways to make it more dynamic and consistent. Probably the best place to start is to identify where you normally fall on the spectrum of structured vs spontaneous prayer. Once you’ve determined which side you lean toward, ask what the other side has that you could incorporate.
If you’re the kind of person who has a very structured prayer life, you have lists of things to pray for and certain days where you pray through certain things, it might be worth trying to emulate Nehemiah and be ready to offer up a quick prayer right in the middle of your day.
If you lean toward the spontaneous side, it might be worth trying a prayer schedule, where maybe one day you pray for your family, the next you pray for your unsaved friends, the next for your leaders and so on. If you want to really go crazy, try praying through an existing prayer. The confession of sin listed above would be a good one, or even better you could memorize a prayer from the Bible (Ephesians 3:14-21 is a good one) and pray that.
There are things to be gained from both styles of prayer and both can help you greatly in your spiritual walk. I highly encourage you to get creative and mix up your prayer life a little.
I’d be very interested to hear what your prayer life looks like. Leave me a comment and let me know which side of the spectrum you lean towards, and why.
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