Prayer Grammar: Learning to Pray More Humanly by Philip Yancey
All the quotations below are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Prayer: Does It make Any Difference?” published in 2006.
Not my preacher, not my teacher,
but it’s me, 0 Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.
We learn to speak not by studying vocabulary and grammar but by babbling, forcing the mouth and supple tongue to form sounds that mimic those we hear. Most children speak first in single words—No! Wawa. More! Daddy. Bye-bye.—and then progress to the kind of simple sentences spoken by a foreigner: `I go play.’
Amazingly, even deaf children babble, but with no aural feedback their ability dwindles. To talk, we need others’ help. A child cannot learn language in isolation, as proved by the horrific cases of children locked for years in attics and closets.
We need help learning to read, too. I remember staring at an oversized children’s book, then dragging it to my mother, bent over an ironing board, and asking repeatedly, `What’s that?’ She taught me letters, then phonetic combinations of letters, and helped me link the words to pictures of cats and dogs on the page. I learned to recognise more letters and more word patterns, then finally I gained the skill to fit the words into a sentence that had meaning. Later, in school, I learned rules of grammar that govern how the words are used. Now I read without even noticing individual letters, oblivious to the subconscious process my brain goes through to assemble meaning from black marks on a page.
Learning to pray, like learning to talk, read, or walk, takes time and involves trial and error. The process will doubtless include feelings of awkwardness and failure. Like grammar, the `rules’ of prayer have the ultimate goal of making it a natural act. Fortunately, we have many mentors in the process and many resources to draw from. People have been praying for a very long time.
Prayers of the Bible
With high hopes you decide to begin a regular practice of prayer. You set aside time one morning and locate a Bible to read as an aid. Shouldn’t God’s Word help clear a channel of communication? You open it at random and read a few verses. That won’t do—it’s a long list of tribes being counted in a kind of census. You turn elsewhere, to one of the big books of prophets. So many foreign names! Scanning, a few pages later you come across descriptions of massacres and starvation. Any meditative feelings slip away, replaced by agitation and confusion. What are you doing wrong?
A newcomer to the Bible is likely to find a rather low proportion of passages that stimulate a sense of prayer and worship. A gap of several millennia separates our world from that of the writers, vastly reducing the odds of a meeting of the minds. Until you become familiar with the Bible’s scheme, the random method will yield random results. For this reason it’s best to begin with passages that focus specifically on prayer. The Bible includes around 650 prayers, some short and some long, reflecting many different circumstances and moods. Taken together, they provide an excellent guide for anyone seeking to learn to pray.
The Lord’s Prayer
Consider first the Lord’s Prayer, or the `Our Father’. Jesus taught it to his disciples, who were already well trained in the Jewish prayers of their day. Yet they recognised a new approach in Jesus’ style of praying and asked for help. In response, he gave this model prayer.
Like most churchgoers I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer hundreds of times, so that I say it without even thinking. It helps me to slow down, reflect on each phrase, and even add my own personal application.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
I begin with an endearing term of relationship, `Father’. Remind me today that you live and reign, not in heaven only but all around me and in my life. Make me aware of your active presence all day, in all my undertakings and in the people I meet.
hallowed be your name,
How can I recognise you—in the splendour of nature, in the odd mix of people I meet, in the still voice that calls me to be more like you? May I`hallow’ what lies before me, by consciously referring it to you, and also honour your perfection, your holiness, by seeking to become more like you.
your kingdom come,
Yes, and allow me to be an agent of that kingdom by bringing peace to the anxious, grace to the needy and your love to all whom I touch. May people believe in your reign of goodness because of how I live today.
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
I see that will most clearly in Jesus, who healed the sick and comforted the grieving, who lifted up the downtrodden, who stood always for life and not death, for hope and not despair, for freedom and not bondage. He lived out heaven’s will on earth. Help me be like Jesus.
Give us today our daily bread.
We have no guarantee of a day beyond this one. May I trust you for what I need today, nourishment for both body and soul, and not worry about future needs and wants. May I also be ever responsive to those who lack bread today.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Remind me of my true state, as a debtor who can never buy my way into your favour. Thank God, I do not have to. Grant me the same attitude of forgiving grace toward those who owe me, and who have wronged me, that you show toward me.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Let me not slide mindlessly toward evil today. Make me alert to its temptations and strong to resist it, with neither fear nor regret.
The Book of Psalms offers a practicum in how to pray. `It is my custom to call this book An Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul,’ wrote John Calvin, `since there is no emotion anyone will experience whose image is not reflected in this mirror.’ Fear, praise, anxiety, anger, love, sorrow, despair, gratitude, grief, doubt, suffering, joy, vengeance, repentance—every human emotion and experience surges to the surface in the prayer-poems of Psalms.
From its earliest days the Christian Church adopted these Jewish prayers into worship, singing psalms together in prayer to God. After all, Jesus himself had sung a psalm with his disciples at the Last Supper and had quoted psalms as he hung dying. When Hitler’s Reich Board for the Regulation of Literature tried to fine Dietrich Bonhoeffer for publishing a book on Psalms—a part of the Jewish Old Testament, they charged—Bonhoeffer successfully appealed by arguing that Psalms was the prayer book of Jesus.
Today Christians and Jews still use this prayer book, and in some places Muslims do as well. The prayers bare the human soul before God in a way that strikes a universal chord. `Whatever can stimulate us when we are about to pray to God, this book teaches,’ said Calvin.
Ordinary life prompts many of the psalmists’ compositions: a view of stars, sheep on a hillside, family problems, wars and rumours of wars, depression or an emotional high. Read straight through the psalms and you will rail against God, praise God for his faithfulness, wish yourself dead, exult in the beauties of nature, bargain for a better life and spit curses against your enemies.*
Psalms keep me honest, by furnishing words to prayers I would not pray apart from their prompting. I have learned to pray more humanly by reading the psalms and making them my prayers. As I read psalms of anger and revenge, I have to face the same tendencies in myself. The psalms expose to the light resentments and wounds long hidden. I find it liberating that God welcomes, even encourages, me to face into my dark side in my prayers. I can trust God with my secrets.
For example, after repeated failure I sometimes turn to Psalm 51, that great prayer written by David at a time of public humiliation after his moral failures became known to the nation. (Think of the period when lurid details of President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky were coming out.) The king’s behaviour was on everyone’s lips in the form of jokes and gossip, then suddenly this psalm appeared.
In the psalm, David traces the devastating effects of sin. Guilt dominates his thoughts: `my sin is always before me.’ He has lost all sense of God’s presence. He feels like hiding from God—but where can he go? Even though his crimes have brought tragedy to many other people, David knows that ultimately `Against you, you only, have I sinned’. He has broken the last five of God’s ten commandments. Unless he can somehow restore a relationship with God, he will never recover the joy and strength he once knew.
When I fail, I go through each stage that David describes in this psalm. I cling to the truth that brought solace to a king who committed adultery and murder:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51 sets out the pattern of guilt, repentance and restoration that I must follow when I fail God. Its words have become my words.
Once, I took a sequence of ten psalms (35-44) and listed other principles of prayer I had learned from them. I found that the psalms broadened my notion of prayer by taking more risks, demanding more of the relationship, expressing more passion. In short, they exposed the shallowness of my own prayers and challenged me to engage with God at a deeper level. Here is some of what I learned:
- Work out animosity toward enemies not by gossip or hostility, but by informing God of their injustice and asking God to set things right.
- It’s all right to express impatience to God, asking for a speeded-up answer to prayer—and even to spell out God’s own interests in achieving the desired results.
- Prayer sometimes involves talking to yourself (‘Do not fret … Trust in the Lord … Be still . . .’), saying aloud what you know to be healthy but have a hard time putting into practice.
- Focus not just on the unfairness and problems of life, but also on all that does turn out well. Review the good things of the past, and don’t forget in the darkness what you learned in the light.
- Project yourself into the future, as a changed person. Behavioural psychologists would call this the `Act as if’ principle.
Beyond these principles, I learned from Psalms to converse with God as I would converse with my employer, my friend, my wife—in short, to treat God as a Person in every sense of the word. I had seen prayer as a kind of duty, not as a safe outlet for whatever I was thinking or feeling. Psalms freed me to go deeper.
Many people have found it a fruitful exercise to rewrite psalms in their own words, substituting particulars of thanks or anguish or petition for the original words. After Eugene Peterson paraphrased a few psalms in modern language and published them in a magazine, an outpouring of reader response encouraged him to translate the entire Bible (The Message). For him, the Psalms decisively answer the question of how to pray. Composed by passionate and all-too-human people who nonetheless saw God as the centre of their lives, they supply words that encompass all human experience:
That’s it: open our Bibles to the book of Psalms and pray them—sequentially, regularly, faithfully across a lifetime. This is how most Christians for most of the Christian centuries have matured in prayer. Nothing fancy. Just do it.
The Prayers of Paul
Of Paul’s letters, all but Titus contain at least one prayer. He prays for an increase of love among the Thessalonians, for more mature behaviour by the Corinthians, for strength and obedience and unity in his readers even as they learn to resist evil. His prayer for the Philippians sums up his desire, that `he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’
I have found it a useful exercise to work through these prayers, too, because they help me move beyond my egocentric requests. Paul raises my sights to a cosmic level. The experience on the Damascus Road convinced him in a flash that Jesus Christ is the centre of the universe and that we should ally with his forces on earth. Our struggle is `against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,’ Paul told the Ephesians, and he prayed as though he believed it.
Often Paul opens with a prayer of thanksgiving for the growth he has observed in his intended readers. He prays as if it matters, truly matters whether they are maturing in the faith. I get the sense, reading Paul’s prayers, that he cared more for others’ well-being than for his own. Do I have that same passion for the spiritual welfare of my friends and family? The prayers of Paul expose by contrast the immature prayers I often hear at church meetings—and my own prayers—which tend to revolve around physical and financial wellbeing.
Yet Paul prays for practical matters, too: sick friends, travel plans and requests for boldness and safety. Sometimes in the middle of a dense prose paragraph his thoughts will spontaneously lift into prayer. God is never far from Paul’s thoughts, and thanksgiving and praise come to mind whenever something good happens. He practises the presence of God by giving credit to God, not himself.
Paul’s prayers, like the psalms, give me a template for my own. I may insert the name of a college student struggling with doubts into the sequence of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians. Or, when I read his exalted prayers for favourite churches and his stern prayers of warning for wayward believers, I turn those prayers like a searchlight on myself. Is my love abounding more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, as Paul prayed for the Philippians? Am I comforting those in trouble, as he prayed for the Corinthians?
From Paul’s prayers I learn to dethrone myself by first considering a cosmic point of view and then looking at my friends and family, my life, the church and indeed all history from that vantage.
Other Prayers in the Bible
While working on The Student Bible my colleague and I made a selection of great prayers of the Bible, which can be read in a two-week period, one prayer a day. Some are intimate and private while others were delivered in a very public setting. Each gives an actual example of a person talking to God about an important matter and teaches something unique about prayer:
Genesis 18: Abraham’s plea for Sodom
Exodus 15: Moses’ song to the Lord
Exodus 33: Moses meets with God
2 Samuel 7: David’s response to God’s promises
1 Kings 8: Solomon’s dedication of the temple
2 Chronicles 20: Jehoshaphat prays for victory
Ezra 9: Ezra’s prayer for the people’s sins
Psalm 22: A cry to God for help
Psalm 104: A prayer of praise
Daniel 9: Daniel’s prayer for the salvation of Jerusalem
Habakkuk 3: A prophet’s prayer of acceptance
Matthew 6: The Lord’s Prayer
John 17: Jesus’ prayer for his disciples
Colossians 1: Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving.
Besides teaching the `grammar’ of prayer, studying the Bible affords a glimpse of the broad sweep of God’s actions in history. It gets my own life off centre stage. I learn the wisdom of reviewing the big picture, of placing my own small story in the context of God’s story. I learn that I am not the only one who has wrestled with God or who has endured a time of wilderness and testing. I learn how to adore God, something that does not come naturally to me. Prayers based on the Bible help me recognise God’s voice.
Others recommend taking a further step beyond simply reading the Bible’s prayers: memorise them, so that they can be recalled at any moment.Debra Rienstra calls the process `stocking up’ on words of the Bible, `giving the Spirit a bigger repertoire to work with in speaking to you—more Post-its on the bulletin board.’ One friend of mine memorised relevant psalms as she rode a subway to nursing school each day, and found they helped relieve anxiety over the crushing workload. Ben Patterson adds, about memorisation:
Paul’s prayers are especially good for this. Take, for example, his prayer for the Ephesians, that `the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.’ Or, `that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.’ The thought of memorizing prayers seems an artificial and stilted way to restore something as vital as spiritual hunger. But consider what Rabbi Abraham Heschel said to the members of his synagogue who complained that the words of the liturgy did not express what they felt. He told them that it was not that the liturgy should express what they feel, but that they should learn to feel what the liturgy expressed. Recited faithfully, great thoughts put into great words can do that for us … Memorization can be to our hunger for God what practicing a musical instrument is for performance. It can be the singing of the scales of the soul.
Written and Spoken Prayers
The church I grew up in considered written prayers downright unspiritual. How could a prayer be sincere and heartfelt if someone read it from a piece of paper? That instinctive reaction probably traces all the way back to low-church rebellion against the Church of England. For centuries Christians had relied on carefully crafted prayers. Yet the Puritan John Milton scorned the majestic prayers of the Anglican Prayer Book as ‘cuckoo-notes’. John Bunyan and George Fox likewise warned against printed prayers, and the Independents in England even disdained use of the Lord’s Prayer in public worship.
Over time, Protestant overreaction tempered. C.S. Lewis preferred fixed prayers for his private devotions because they kept the focus on permanent things rather than `contemporary problems’. (For this reason, Lewis opposed revising the Prayer Book: `the more “up to date” the Book is, the sooner it will be dated.’) He also felt uncomfortable with the casual, extemporaneous prayers common in evangelical churches. How can we mentally join in a prayer until we’ve heard it? he asked. The prayer may contain actual heresy. He preferred fixed prayers, the theology of which had been honed by the Church.
Written prayers serve an especially useful purpose, I have found, during periods of spiritual dryness, when spontaneous prayer seems an impossible chore. I borrow the words, if not the faith, of others when my own words fail. At such a time I have two options. I can stop praying completely, which only serves to distance me further from God. Or I can keep going, asking God to see me through this difficult period, meanwhile leaning on the prayers of others.
As I have mentioned, for a year I relied on prayers from a Liturgy of the Hours. I have also used The Book of Common Prayer; both of these collections are readily available in inexpensive editions. Because they are designed for group worship, under the guidance of a leader, they may not seem user-friendly at first. Yet they have the advantage of being compiled by people sensitive to both spiritual and literary concerns, and they have stood the test of time.
I must admit, however, that apart from exceptional times I tend not to rely on fixed prayers—not out of aversion but because as a writer I find them distracting. I start attending to the words and images, and my editing instinct kicks in: ‘Hmm, what if she had broken the line here, and not there, or used a metaphor rather than the flat statement . . .’ In my profession I am always looking for new ways to express thoughts, and I find it difficult to read familiar words over and over. I consider this tendency a defect, and hope with time it will fade.
Oddly enough, I never have these editorial thoughts while reading the Bible, at least in a good translation, and if I stick to truly great writers, such as John Donne or George Herbert, the temptation to edit never occurs. Reflective poetry lends itself to meditative prayer. Already language is compressed; in meditation I plumb the metaphors and unpack the meaning, just as I do with the Bible. Well-written hymns and praise music can serve the same purpose.
For those who prefer extemporaneous prayers, practical advice abounds. Many popular guides recommend a formula based on the acronym ACTS, for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. Rosalind Rinker made the formula even simpler, attaching a New Testament reference to each stage: (1) Jesus is here (Matthew 18:19-20); (2) Help me, Lord (James 5:13-16); (3) Thank you, Lord (Philippians 4:4-7); (4) Help my brother (Mark 11:22-5).
The Catholic masters of prayer, most of whom spent several hours daily at the task, have proposed a dizzying array of steps to prayer. Ignatius spelled out nine stages for preparation alone. Francis de Sales adapted that method into a pattern of meditation that has proved helpful to Catholics and Protestants alike. De Sales’s method consists of four main stages:
Step 1: Preparation. Let the imagination roam, placing yourself in the presence of God, affirming that since God is everywhere, he is here now. Think of Christ as standing at your side, sharing your experience. Offer a prayer of confession and request guidance in the meditation to follow.
Step 2: Consideration. Propose a subject, perhaps suggested by a Bible passage you just read, and focus your mind on that subject. Act `like the bees, who do not leave a flower so long as they find any honey there to gather’.
Step 3: Resolution. Involve your feelings and your will. How should your life change as a result of what you have considered? Resolve to make those changes accordingly, with God’s help.
Step 4: Conclusion. As if you have been walking in a garden, choose a few flowers to take with you the rest of the day. Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for what you have learned, of consecration for what you intend to change, of petition for grace and strength to fulfill the resolution.
I have sampled various methods from time to time, and find them useful as long as I think of them as a supporting structure, a sort of scaffolding, rather than a rigid formula I must follow. The goal is to spend time with God, not to follow a legalistic procedure. If a system helps achieve that goal, fine. If not, I move on. Moods change, life goes through seasons, personalities differ. Each person who prays will need to find a rhythm or method that fits, for each of us has a unique privilege of offering love and attention to the One who made and sustains us.
There are a variety of ways to learn the grammar of prayer, and in seasons of strength and seasons of weakness I have tried many. In the process, I have learned to trust that through the Spirit who makes intercession God will hear our prayers, no matter how eloquent or prosaic.
Jesus lived before the invention of clocks and watches, and bells from the Roman forum tolled divisions in the day—at 6.00 a.m., 9.00 a.m., noon, 3.00 p.m. and 6.00 p.m. Devout Jews adopted this schedule for their daily prayers, and early Christians continued the practice. The Book of Acts shows Peter and John healing a man on the steps of the temple on their way to observe afternoon prayers, and Peter receiving a vision on the rooftop while saying noon prayers.
Over the years, Christian communities formalised the `Prayer of the Hours’ based on fixed-hour prayers. It was for this reason that the Church produced such collections as the Liturgy of the Hours and The Book of Common Prayer, spelling out prayers and Bible readings for the appropriate hours of each day. In recent years, Christians acquainted mainly with free-form, spontaneous prayers have discovered rich rewards in following the Divine Hours at set times during the day, praying the collected wisdom of a hundred generations of believers as a kind of passing of the spiritual torch.
Phyllis Tickle speaks of the satisfaction of belonging to such a communion of prayer, knowing that the words she speaks to God were spoken an hour before in the time zone to the east and will be spoken again by fellow Christians to the west, until the very same prayer encircles the globe. In a trilogy of books, Tickle streamlined the practice into morning, midday and evening prayers, while retaining the older prayer books’ emphasis on the Bible and classical sources. `They are the songs of the fathers and mothers since the calling of Abraham; and by joining that chorus, each man or woman who prays slips joyfully into the long ribbon of life that is the vertical communion of the saints across the ages.’
Tickle adds that fixed prayers do not supplant the need for prayers about her own personal concerns. She combines the two, often following the time-honoured ACTS formula for spontaneous prayers. As one advocate of the Divine Hours puts it, `I think a lot of evangelicals have exhausted the individualized approach and find relief in the liturgical; people raised in cold liturgical traditions find relief in the warmth and informality of evangelical prayer.’ Phyllis Tickle suggests that a combination of the individual and liturgical can keep us refreshed.
Not all schedules lend themselves to breaks at fixed hours in the day. Not all personalities will find such a structure useful. The common danger we face, though, is getting so absorbed in daily life that we simply fail to show up. Any visitor to a Muslim country can see the difference. Five times a day, when the call to prayer goes out, all work and commerce stops, buses and trains empty, and faithful Muslims roll prayer rugs, bowing low to say their prayers. Christians have no such ritual to stop and remember God. It’s up to us.
In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, convent chapel bells sound every hour, causing everyone in the convent—prioress, mothers, sisters, novices, postulants—to interrupt what they are doing or saying and turn their thoughts to God. For a time I tried something similar by setting my watch to chime softly each hour, a reminder to turn my thoughts to God. (I kept forgetting to turn it off, and halted the practice after irritating people in meetings and waking myself up at night.) It takes effort simply to remember.
A pious Jew, expected to pronounce a blessing more than a hundred times a day, remains always on the lookout for something deserving of a barakh. Jews and Christians both, following the example of Nehemiah, shoot `arrow prayers’ toward heaven, messages as brief as `Give me strength’ or `Help, Lord!’ Those who struggle with addictions may fire off an arrow prayer every time they pass a bar, see someone smoking, or log on to the Internet. The writer Anne LaMott says her favourite prayers are `Thank you, thank you, thank you’, and `Help me, help me, help me.’
I have sometimes chosen a phrase from a biblical prayer to repeat throughout the day, not as a talisman but as a needed reminder. When I have failed, I’ll pray over and over, `Create in me a pure heart, 0 God’; when spiritually depressed, `Restore to me the joy of your salvation.’ The very repetition of the words throughout the day works its effect on my downcast soul. I ask God to help me believe the words I am praying.
For me, the words of prayer are less important than the act of remembering. I look for the spaces, the interstices, in my life. Lying awake at night, insomnious. Soaking in a bathtub. Driving. Biding time while my computer reboots. Sitting in a ski lift. Standing in line at a checkout. Waiting for someone who is late. Riding on a public bus or train. Exercising. Lengthy church services, I find, offer prime opportunities for prayer. Instead of fidgeting or staring at my watch during a lull, I pray.
If I remember, I try to turn those otherwise wasted moments into prayers, sometimes with startling results. I find myself more aware of the old woman in front of me fumbling through her purse. I pray for the people inside as I pass a neighbour’s house, a church, a bar, an AIDS clinic, a university. I pray while watching the news, or during commercials (think how much an advertiser pays for fifteen seconds of my time).
`The wind blows wherever it pleases,’ Jesus said to Nicodemus. `You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.’ And so I have found, as I look for God in the everydayness of life. ‘Aha’ moments catch me by surprise: a surge of gratitude, a pang of compassion. But they catch me, I have learned, only when I am looking for them. [162-175]
*Because the cursing psalms create such a problem to many readers, I will briefly summarise some of the thoughts I detailed in another book, The Bible Jesus Read:
As Dorothy Sayers once remarked, we all have diabolical thoughts, but there’s a world of difference in how we act on those thoughts, whether, say, we write a murder mystery or commit murder. If a person wrongs me unjustly, I have several options. I can seek personal revenge, a response condemned by the Bible. I can deny or suppress my feelings of hurt and anger. Or, I can take those feelings to God, entrusting God with the task of retributive justice. The cursing psalms are vivid examples of that last option. The authors are expressing their outrage to God, not to the enemy.
Instinctively, we want to clean up our feelings in our prayers, but perhaps we have it all backwards. Perhaps we should strive to take all our worst feelings to God. After all, what would be gossip when addressed to anyone else is petition when addressed to God. What is a vengeful curse when spoken about someone (‘Damn those people!’) is a plea of helpless dependence when spoken directly to God (‘It’s up to you to damn those people—only you are a just judge’).
I see the cursing psalms as an important model for how to deal with evil and injustice. I should not try to suppress my reaction of horror and outrage at evil. Nor should I try to take justice in my own hands. Rather, I should deliver those feelings, stripped bare, to God. As the Books of Job, Jeremiah and Habakkuk clearly show, God has a high threshold of tolerance for what is appropriate to say in a prayer. God can ‘handle’ my unsuppressed rage. I may well find that my vindictive feelings need God’s correction—but only by taking those feelings to God will I have that opportunity for correction and healing.