Rote prayers. We all have them. Sometimes they are the perfunctory words we use before eating a meal:
“Dear God, thank you for this food we are about to eat, and thank you for all that you have given to us. Help to go through each day knowing and doing your will. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Sometimes they are a meaningless combination of words or phrases that provide neither clarity nor intimacy in our communion with God:
“Lord, lead, guide, and direct us.” (if God is leading us, He is guiding us. If He is guiding us, He is directing us. Why do we need all three words, when one will do?)
And sometimes our rote prayers have emptied themselves of both potency and urgency due to years of repetition and an undercurrent of hopelessness.
“Save my friend.”
“Heal my child.”
“Bring us revival in this land.”
Yet through it all, we continue to pray our memorized words because we believe in the power of persistence and we do not know what else to say.
And to some degree this is okay.
Jesus taught that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8) and we know that when we are at a loss for words, “the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26).
But sometimes we need to take a minute and listen to our words. We need to ask ourselves: What am I saying? What am I trying to say? How can I make this prayer more about bearing fruit for Him, rather than Him bearing fruit for me? And how can I express through my prayer that I trust His sovereignty, regardless of the outcome?
For example, look at the rote mealtime prayer typed above. What am I saying when I use the phrase “thank you for all that you have given to us”? Am I aware of only the blessings God has bestowed upon me or do I also take the time to worship Him for how He has protected me, disciplined me with trials, or wept with me? Do I see His love and providence in the death of my father as easily as I do the mashed potatoes that I will be able to eat once I say Amen? Is my heart directed towards true gratitude and appreciation for all that God has done or is this rote prayer merely an amuse-bouche to a meal?
If we are to take prayer seriously, we must remember that prayer is an act of pouring ourselves out to God in humility and not a self-reflective accounting of all the blessings we have or goodness we exhibit (Luke 18:9-14). It is the spiritual response to the natural encounter we have with the nature, the character, and the person of God. Prayer is not only a communication to God. It is, if the Bible is to be believed, an interaction with God that is so intimate it becomes the diegetic soundtrack of the Christian life.
Prayer, therefore, should be neither memorized nor rote, for the notes one plays from his heart towards God ought to join the melody of His story and make harmony with His heart. If it does not, we ought to examine our prayers in boldness and infuse them with a fresh exploration of what we are trying to say and by whom we are declaring “In Christ’s name, Amen.”