In the early years of my ministry, I would, on a rare occasion, write out a portion of a devotional prayer that was on my heart. This practice led to one family in Saltsburg, PA becoming very angry with me when a family member read some notes I had left in the pulpit after a Sunday service. They thought such a prayer was not authentic, or heart felt. They decreed it to be an unbiblical practice.
Quickly the family spread the word throughout the congregation that the pastor was reading his prayers. They did not talk to me about the situation before they spread their malicious opinions. They only caused trouble, needlessly. On every point, the family was wrong. A devotional prayer that is written out prior to its public utterance can be authentic and heartfelt because it has been carefully thought out. Certainly, it is not an unbiblical practice.
In the book of Joel, the LORD called the people of Israel to a day of national repentance. To guide the people in their prayer of repentance, the LORD gave the priests the very words they were to say to Him, and an important argument they were to make as to why mercy and grace should be shown to the nation. Here are the words the LORD God gave to the priests to pray to Him.
“Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, ‘Spare thy people, O LORD, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:17)
The priests were to plead with the LORD to spare the people from a locust plague sweeping the land because they were a people of the covenant. “Spare thy people, O LORD.” The primary reason why the LORD God should show mercy to His people was to protect His honor among the heathen nations that were witnesses to the locust plague in Israel. The Gentile nations would conclude that the God of Israel was too weak to help His people. The honor and glory of God to deliver His own would be undermined. His glory would be tarnished.
The larger point to notice is that devotional prayers that are written out, and liturgical prayers that are offered by, and on behalf of the people are very biblical. While it is true that some prayers can become routine and meaningless, it is also true they can be authentic and heartfelt because they are given by God. A religious ritual without any corresponding heart felt emotion is meaningless, but, when the heart is engaged, and the words of a prayer are sincere, the LORD God is pleased, and will honor the petition of the prayer. He will do so to bring a blessing to His people, and to bring honor and glory to Himself.
If there is concern over prayers that are written out prior to a formal worship service, there should also be concern about those prayers which are viewed as being spontaneous, but, in reality, are often formulaic, and predictable. Baptist love to ask the Lord to “lead, guide, and direct” them. Before a fellowship dinner it is not uncommon to ask the Lord to “bless the hands that prepared the food.”
The Southern evangelist, Dr. John R. Rice, told the story of him asking the LORD to bless the family meal. He noticed that before he had reached the end of his prayer, one of his little girls was saying, “Amen. Amen. Amen.” Upon self-examination, Dr. Rice realized he was repeating a prayer whose ending his daughter could anticipate. He changed the way he prayed to be more conscious of what was being said, and less predictable.
The conclusion of the matter is that there is room for liturgical prayers in the Church, which allows for the participation of the people of God in the work of God. There is room for well thought out devotional prayers. There is room for spontaneous prayers that are not formulaic, or a ritual without any heartfelt reality. There is room for biblical prayers to be offered because God Himself has given them. Therefore, let the Church pray the Psalms. Pray the prayers of all the saints throughout the Bible. Pray without ceasing. Pray authentic prayers.