Should we use set prayers, borrowing someone else’s words, or should we make up our own? Different streams of Christianity have classically emphasised one over the other. But, what might Scripture suggest?
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he responded with what we know as “the Lord’s prayer”. This was a new prayer, one which was presumably unknown to the disciples up to that point. So, in providing it, was Jesus giving them the one and only prayer to be spoken by his followers from that point on, or was he giving them a model to guide their own words, or was it both?
The Psalms were written over many years, yet each of them was new at some point in time. Somebody created these songs and prayers in response to particular situations. Then, people found them useful and helpful to take on as their own. Yes, they often exhort us to sing a new song to God, but they prove by their existence that the old ones are not obsolete.
Paul’s prayers in his letters respond to the specific needs, challenges and reasons to rejoice for each community he wrote to. There was clearly an element of improvisation to his prayers. Yet, he was not someone afraid to re-use “traditional material”. Although we may lack examples of prayers being re-used by Paul, he certainly takes “trustworthy sayings” and carefully composed passages and re-uses them (e.g. Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, 2 Timothy 2:11-13, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 11:23-25).
So, prayer, according to examples given to us in the Bible, is a mixture of re-using set words and making up our own. Leaning on the words of others is not a weakness. We can learn much from them and we can use them when we are struggling to find our own. Similarly, making up our prayers doesn’t mean they are superficial or inappropriate. We can all communicate personally, expressing ourselves in our own ways in prayer to our God.
Perhaps you might like to try a form of prayer that isn’t your “usual”. If you find it easy to speak to God in your own words, why not try using someone else’s and see what you can learn? Perhaps draw from a classic prayer collection such as the Book of Common Prayer, for example. If you normally use set prayers, perhaps try missing them out and only expressing things in your own words today instead.
Does your use of set or spontaneous prayers follow a specific pattern or seasonal nature? Why might you use one more than the other? Do they find a settled balance in your prayer life?
© Joe Lenton, July 2012