Prayer is unnatural and often dubious, so it is difficult. We wonder if we have the right motives, if we will be heard by God, and if we have sufficient trust in our requests. We may feel cluttered with distractions of our concerns and doubts. We can feel paralyzed by the many prescriptions about prayer, such as:
- pray with thanks and worship before making requests
- persevere (“keep asking and knocking”) even if you don’t get a response at first
- repetitive prayers can be vain and so God will ignore those (this warning comes to mind when I see pedestrians pushing the button for the walk signal repeatedly)
- prayer should be unceasing
- prayer can be conversational
- pray biblical prayers, such as the so-called Prayer of Jabez
- prayer gets God to change his mind
- prayer does not change God; prayer changes me
I offer a recommendation for the difficulties of prayer despite the many confusing prescriptions about how to pray and the clutter in our consciousness as we attempt to pray. When we turn to prayer, we are often distracted, and we have trouble forming prayers that are genuine and relational instead of being religious and done as a work—perhaps even as a formula resembling magic (for example, “If I pray the right way, then I’ll get what I want from God”).
Clutter can be faced in at least two ways. First, John Coe suggests that we make the clutter our agenda for prayer. If I am distracted by worry about my dwindling finances and my swelling stack of bills while I am trying to pray about other things, then I can pivot to make my financial concerns the thing I talk to God about right now. This approach of praying about the things that are bothering me or cluttering my consciousness can be a way of following the Spirit’s leading for what to pray about. That question of “God, what do I need to talk to you about?” can be a fruitful start in a meeting with God. This approach can help to clear the clutter so we may focus on other concerns.
Second, I recommend the use of a training device for prayer so we can talk to God while we remain engaged with daily life—even in conversations with people. This training device can become prayer itself, by which we actually talk to God, but that is not the primary function of the device. The main purpose is to experience the form of prayer as natural within and alongside normal life. We need this because we do not normally engage the supernatural in the midst of the natural. We have trouble mixing molecules and miracles, living according to both the judgments of other people and living according to God’s justification of us in Christ. Prayer as our touch to God can be difficult while we are in touch with a world that tries very hard to function as if there is no God. Against the experience of dissonance between knowing God and living in actual daily life, a training device can help us to experience prayer as less abnormal and more of a habit, or even a sixth sense, like intuition. This device can even carry us along towards the goal of praying without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:17).
I was first introduced to the so-called Jesus Prayer by J.P. Moreland in a class at Talbot several years ago. At his suggestion, I read the little Eastern Orthodox book, The Way of the Pilgrim. This nineteenth century book is a story of a Russian Christian practicing the training device of the Jesus prayer as he travelled through many regions gaining wisdom along the way.
This training device has a long tradition in Christian practice and continues to be a staple of meditation for residents and visitors at monasteries. Conceptually, the training device is a rope and guideline for prayer to feel the movement and connection of talking to God when such a guide is needed because of clutter or distress. By comparison, I know the way around my house in the dark, but sometimes I trace my hand along the wall or furniture when I am less sure. This training device helps to settle the soul into prayer, to feel that reach to God as natural. It can be a cognitive signal to focus and open to God, and a cognitive practice of being open to God while engaged in daily life tasks.
Proponents of the Jesus prayer agree that the long and short forms of the device do not matter. I think it is a bit of a misnomer to call it a prayer, since most use of it is as a training device, a mantra. Obviously, the use of mantras is deep within Hindu and Buddhist practice, but so is eating rice. The appearance of a devotional exercise in other religions does not automatically disqualify a similar practice for Christians. The similarity may be due to general revelation anyway, by which Buddhists and Hindus have hit upon the biblical prescription for meditation (and the conjunct of memorizing Scripture) that is so common in the Psalms.
- The long form: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
- The short form: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.
The biblical citation for this mantra-training device for prayer is the cry to “Jesus, Son of David” for mercy in Matthew 9:27; 20:30 (Mark 10:47; Luke 17:13; 18:38).
The basic practice is to say the mantra again and again, out loud, and internally, in hundreds of repetitions.
My first experiment was about 300 repetitions while watching the waves roll in at the beach. Breathing matches to saying the phrases, I became aware of my heartbeat, and I found myself focusing alternately on different aspects of the mantra. This is a biblical-theological meditation even though it resembles a mantra. (I don’t have a problem with calling it a mantra, but some Christians might be troubled by that.)
In short, this is an exercise for prayer, not an actual prayer, so it’s not vain repetition in the attempt to be heard by God for having asked so many times. The exercise is to develop prayerful consciousness that comes naturally, so we can pray while doing other things in daily life.
The Jesus prayer can be a path to “practicing the presence of God” (Brother Lawrence) by which we learn to think about God and reach for him while engaged in the stuff of life. By doing the mantra while washing dishes, or exercising, or driving, we develop facility to actually talk to God in those modes. Our minds will normally be focused on something while we are conscious—we meditate without even trying and consider memories, hopes, worries, grudges, and etc. while walking around and doing things. Turning off that chatter is difficult unless we have something to focus upon. As a substitute for the Jesus prayer as a mantra, we can use another phrase or sentence from the Bible, or some theological truth we need—God’s love for me, that I am justified in Christ, that I am called to love others, etc. The advantage of the Jesus prayer is that it is cognitively easy even with its heavy weight of theological truth, so I don’t have to put much effort in to repeating it meditatively.
The Jesus prayer can also be a path to withdraw from the clutter and actually meet with God in prayer when we desire to do so. Repeating the mantra five times or a dozen times signals our consciousness to be present with God and enjoy living with him in prayer. Then we can move into prayer directly. What a warm-up and light stretching are for preparing to exercise, the Jesus prayer is a warm-up preparation to real prayer of meeting God personally and honestly.
The Jesus prayer has proven effective for many people, probably because of its rhythm and simplicity. It is surprisingly rich theologically, so long meditation does not exhaust it. The mantra drives us to consider a person, and his work for us. Most important is to follow the rope to God, to be trained by the mantra usage for actual prayer and communion with God. That communion is what many have experienced when they set upon this training device, and the same communion in prayer is available to you.