In an article which I wrote, (page 66, Standard Bearer) I mentioned Jacob waiting fourteen years for Rachel (page 67). At the Conference a brother reminded me that Scripture states Jacob took Rachel to wife before the last period of seven years labor began, hence waiting but seven years for her. Some time later another brother writes to this column about it, and he too reminds me of this fact. By the way, 1 attempted to correspond with this last named brother, writing to him at the address given on his letter, but I got the letter back, saying there was no such address. Hence, let me assure the brother that I received his letter and that his contention is correct. My mistake. Jacob waited seven years for Rachel, not fourteen, that is, he took her to wife before the seven years of labor for her began. I was surprised to learn this. Perhaps you too will be surprised. Imagine that! having learned it that way once upon a time (I believe it was in catechism), having studied this event and its surroundings, having preached about it, taught it in school and catechism, wrote Sunday School lessons concerning it. . . . and still always having read the text wrong. Perhaps you have had like experiences with these things. Our “I’m sure I know”, sometimes wanes into a “I thought I knew”, and even sometimes dissolves into a “I don’t know”.
If I do not discontinue this shortly, you might think that I was just writing this to fill up my column. That is not the case.
I choose for my subject this time:
Growth In Prayer.
When discussing the subject of prayer with one of the saints, he said to me: “I find this a great danger in our praying, that we repeat our prayers, until at length we can utter them from memory”.
Have you ever accused yourself of not having your thoughts with your prayers? That is, have you ever experienced that while were were praying you were actually thinking about something else? In other words, your thoughts were not with your praying.
There then you have two things related to our prayer life.
And I wonder if there is not a possible connection between these two things. Sinful as we all are, we sometimes pray to leave an impression. Sometimes we pray to express our opinion about matters, and sometimes we pray to gain a point. Then our thoughts may be wth our prayers, indeed, but not with God to whom we are praying. In which case our thoughts are at another place than our words purportedly are.
But sometimes our thoughts wander here or there, they roam aimlessly about, our thoughts may be on our business, our undertakings, or any other thing, but all the while we are speaking words, words purportedly addressed to God.
I recall the story (as stories go) of a horse-trader, stopping for dinner with a friend. The host asked the guest to offer prayer. The guest consented. After the prayer the host remarked what a fine prayer he had offered. The guest however, to his shame, had to admit that while he was offering that prayer he had really been selling his horses. This may be a bit coarse, but who of us hasn’t had to accuse himself of uttering words while the thoughts were elsewhere. This ought not to be, it is sinful, but sins are facts, and painful facts sometimes.
How about this repeating the same prayers until we can utter them from memory? Is there a danger here? How serious is it?
We all know how the Catechism defines the essence of true prayer, and naturally we must find this essence in every prayer which we utter. Therefore we will repeat our prayers as long as we live.
But they who are called upon to pray often, especially I mean in public, realize that the tendency exists to become used to a certain, I might say, formula prayer, and then repeat it almost invariably.
This can become the case with ministers who perhaps twice or thrice every Sunday engage in congregational prayers. And then all the other public prayers which are to be rendered, sometimes ten to fourteen or even more on one day. The prayers must always bear the essence of true prayer as the Catechism defines it, and hence there must be repetition. And it is well that certain things be always repeated. They cannot be repeated too often. Repeat it until everyone learns to repeat it with you. But unless the minister watch diligently, he will in due time be able to pray his prayer without the stimula of sanctified thinking.
Fathers in the home, too, who perhaps offer prayer six or more times per day at meals, are confronted with the matter of repetition. I have heard fathers say to me that they felt themselves incapable of offering six prayers a day without falling into simple repetition. This was no excuse of course, for if they engage in silent prayer the same problem confronts them.
Teachers in our Christian schools offer perhaps two or four or more prayers per day. They, too, are liable to adopt stereotyped prayers and use them almost without variation.
Is there a danger here?
This is a delicate subject.
No one ought to be discouraged at the tendency of repetition much less ought they to use this tendency as an excuse to refrain from public praying, nor from frequent public praying.
Let us stand fast.
We easily adopt prayer formulas.
Repetition With Variation.
If we take somewhat of an inventory of the prayers recorded in Scripture we find what we might call repetition with variation. If one reads the Psalms, the prayers of David and others, one finds certain matters always repeated. There is the petition for forgiveness of sins, the prayer for deliverance, the plea for mercy, the request for strength, the doxology, etc. Yet one finds these almost with endless variations, depending upon the condition of the soul or upon the attendant circumstances. David’ prayer in Psalm 23, for instance, is quite different from his Psalm 51. The Spirit of Christ which was in them prayed within them, yet the expression thereof varied.
Jesus gave us the perfect prayer. It was given at the request of a disciple, who said: teach us to pray (cf. Luke 11). And our Heidelberg Catechism explains it as the model of the prayers of all saints. It was not given merely as something which one memorizes and then simply repeats, but as the model after which all our prayers should be fashioned.
Therefore we will have repetition, but with variation.
Is there danger if we get stereotyped prayers?
I believe there is.
A person can adopt a certain word order, certain sentences, and then repeat that prayer so often that at long last one can give it from memory. In that case there is the danger of praying almost purely from habit. And it can easily be that the soul scarcely enters into the prayer at all. I do not say that the soul cannot enter into formula prayers (it can and does if used aright) but the danger is present that our prayers become words which we can utter without any soul effort.
The words can be uttered while the mind and our thoughts are engaged elsewhere.
Besides, when one grows used to confining himself to his adopted form, it becomes almost impossible to express himself in any other way. If he tries it he stutters and stumbles and can scarcely seem to find words. Conditions and circumstances vary, but his prayers cannot vary. Thus making it impossible for him who prays to react or respond in harmony with the circumstances. Life is varied and changeable, circumstances change constantly, our needs vary, we react differently under different circumstances, the soul would sometimes groan in contrition, sometimes it would leap for joy. . . . but the soul has not the words with which to express itself. Such a situation can result if we do not grow in prayer and develop the gift of prayer.
Finally, if we stereotype our prayers we shut out the possibility of growth and development. We are satisfied to stay within the framework of our formula and therefore make no progress toward prayer development. This is the more serious if we consider that prayer must be soul-effort. Prayer must engage all our attention, all our interest, all our effort. We are liable to lose this if we adopt custom prayers. Nay, rather, if prayer becomes soul-effort, spiritual wrestling. . . . if we approach that of which Scripture says that there are groanings “which cannot be uttered” and of “ joy unspeakable”, then we shall wrestle also to find new words, more words; we should exhaust the dictionary to find means of expressing ourselves. Even then we fail. But that effort is prayer.
How we may develop prayer growth? Let us leave that for the next time.