“Can I pray a written prayer?”

Within the baptist tradition, there seems to be a certain repulsion towards written prayers.  For whatever reason (probably because of its association with certain other traditions or its abuse), it has a stigma. For example, the great Baptist Charles Spurgeon once said,

Be assured that free [i.e., unprepared] prayer is the most scriptural, and should be the most excellent form of public supplication. … a manner which is warranted by the word of God, and accepted of the Lord. The expression, “reading prayers,” to which we are now so accustomed, is not to be found in Holy Scripture … The phrase is not there because the thing itself had no existence. Where in the writings of the apostles meet we with the bare idea of a liturgy? Prayer in the assemblies of the early Christians was unrestricted to any form of words.[1]

I want to respond, “Eh, Spurgeon, don’t be so dogmatic here. Don’t be so harsh now.”

This might seem to be a silly topic about which to write a blog post. Maybe it’s not a big deal. But, then again, it seems to me that this stigma is causing some of us to be unnecessarily judgmental and stingy. Also, if it’s okay to use written prayers and we’re not, we may be missing out on something helpful. Hence, maybe this is something worth considering.

So, I want to try to dispel this notion that praying written prayers is by nature bad.

Praying written prayers are taboo because we’ve seen them abused. But we shouldn’t allow the abuse of something to cause us necessarily to reject that thing altogether. Or, if nothing else, we shouldn’t allow the abuse a particular practice to influence us to reason and think dishonestly about it. So, let’s think about this issue more accurately.

The essential thought behind this stigma is that if one prays someone else’s prayer, someone else’s words, his or her prayer is by necessity disingenuous. It’s just heaping up empty words (Mt 6:7). However, let’s think about this. There are several things that challenge conception.

The psalms – The collection of Psalms in our Bibles essentially functioned as Israel’s hymnbook. And these songs are also prayers. In other words, these are sort of like corporate prayers. Therefore, a particular psalm, although having been written by one individual, was sung and prayed by Israel at large. And that wasn’t seen as making these Israelites’ prayers and worship disingenuous.

You say, “But that’s scripture.” Okay…

Worship songs and hymns – We have something similar today. We sing lots of songs written by other people. But even though they were written by other people, when we sing them, we mean the words we are singing (hopefully). Our praise is (hopefully) genuine even those the words are supplied by another’s pen.

Corporate prayer – I’ve never come across someone who is against corporate prayer, where one person is praying out loud on behalf of a group of Christians. But this is kind of like praying a prayer written by someone else. We are (suppose to be) participating and praying with the person praying out loud. Similarly, as one reads a written prayer, the point is to prayer those words yourself.

So, it’s not necessarily disingenuous to prayer another’s words.

Now, obviously a caveat needs to be inserted before I get drowned in the baptismal. Even if we conclude that using written prayers is fine and can even be helpful, we still need to maintain that this is something that can be abused. We have a tendency in our Christian culture to view a lot of issues in “black or white” categories, either totally good or totally bad. Let’s see this issue (and others!) as more nuanced and complicated than that. For example, if all one prays is written prayers, that might indicate there is a problem just as much as refusing the practice altogether seems to reveal a sense of naïveté.

So, in closing, let’s diffuse this stigma and maybe be a little less judgmental about those who use written prayers. And maybe we should consider whether we, because of this taboo, have been missing out on something that can be tremendously helpful.

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[1] Spurgeon, Charles H. (2012-07-04). Lectures To My Students (Kindle Locations 955-960). Fig. Kindle Edition.

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2 thoughts on ““Can I pray a written prayer?”

  1. Yes excellent post, I esp. noted the reference to Psalms. Nice to remember that Surgeon spoke highly of John Wesley (who “read prayers” as a clergyman in the Ch. of England): “if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitfield and John Wesley”
    That free prayer is the “most excellent form” does not mean that other forms are not excellent because they do not rank in the superlative.
    Some Spurgeon quotes that don’t often make headlines: http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

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