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Cruel Rules for Prayer

some protestants, particularly those whose origins are in the third wave of the reformation, have four unofficial rules for prayer:

Cruel Rule 1:
You Can’t Pray Preprinted Prayers

The objection with preprinted prayers is that they come from the writer, not the person praying, but what about praying the Lord’s Prayer or the psalms? What better way to pray than in God’s own words? It is a good idea to pray prayers from prayer books or devotional resources, when they express your concerns better than you can.

The ban on preprinted prayers is cruel. It plays into the hands of the Evil One, because it is easy for us to be in such need of prayer that we cannot find words and cannot pray. Reading prayers out loud requires concentration, which locks out the cares of the world and the temptation of the Evil One to despair.

Cruel Rule 2:
You Can’t Pray Memorized Prayers

If you have ever visited a ward for patients suffering from dementia, you notice that they can still sing songs from their childhood and popular songs from their early adulthood. When our intellects deteriorate, the last thing to go is poetry and song lyrics, which are essentially the same thing. The easiest prayer to memorize is a prayer in poetic form. If you are able to write poems—I don’t mean the contemporary-style broken-tabulator poetry, I mean prayers with rhyme and meter or even just short catchy phrases—you will be able to memorize them and pray them whenever the need arises.

Now of course you probably aren’t demented, or you likely wouldn’t be reading this, but there is one prayer you should definitely memorize and pray, and that is the Lord’s Prayer. I’m sure you have noticed that Protestants add for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever, but Catholics do not. There’s no need to argue about it, since there is nothing in that phrase that either Protestants or Catholics would disagree with.

If you check Matthew 6:9-13 or Luke 11:1-4, you’ll find that the Catholics are right in leaving it off. It’s not the ending of the prayer in the Bible. Where did it come from?

One day, when I was reading old liturgies (I must have been very bored that day), I discovered that one of them had for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever at the end of every prayer. Apparently this phrase got stuck to the Lord’s Prayer for Protestants, though it is interesting that—on this point anyway—Catholics are actually more scriptural than Protestants.

The ban on memorized prayers plays into the hands of the Evil One, because it is easy for us to be in such need of prayer that we cannot find words and cannot pray. A memorized prayer might be sufficient by itself, or it might loosen your tongue for a longer prayer session.

The nice thing about memorized prayers, especially if they are short, is that you can pray them at any time, in the car or on the bus, or even while walking down the sidewalk.

Cruel Rule 3
You Must Pray Very Long Prayers

This is not so much a rule as it is a tendency. Pastors often fall victim to it, as you’ve found out at any church dinner when someone asks a minister to bless the food. He drones on and on until your stomach grumbles, the gravy on the mashed potatoes freezes over, and you feel faint from standing so long. If you think I’m being too hard on ministers, remember that I am one.

I don’t know why people feel the need to pray marathon prayers. Long prayers are evidence of stamina, not spirituality. It is very difficult to stay focused long enough to do it, and there is no trophy for the person with the longest prayer. It is much better to pray a series of little prayers, one for each of your concerns. You might hear about an old lady who says she stayed up all night praying for her grandson, and you get the impression that she prayed one, long, eight-hour prayer, which might have been the case. However, she also could have been praying a long series of shorter prayers. You don’t know.

This rule requiring long prayers is cruel, because when you overburdened, you might be so overwhelmed by your concerns that you can’t concentrate enough to pray an encyclopedia. If something interrupts your marathon prayer, it is ruined, but if something interrupts your chain of small prayers, you can always pick up where you left off later. It plays into the hands of the Evil One, because it is easy for be in such need of prayer that you give up and don’t even pray at all, because you can’t organize your thoughts into such a long prayer.

Cruel Rule 4:
You Can’t Pray for the Same Thing Twice

I have heard people say that praying for the same thing over and over again, such as praying for a sick relative every day, shows a lack of faith that God didn’t hear you the first time.

This rule is not scriptural. It stems from a misunderstanding of Matthew 6:7, in which Jesus says, when you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words, and of 1 Corinthians 14:19, in which Paul says, …nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

However, neither Paul nor Jesus objected to the repetition, but to the repetition of empty phrases or meaningless babble.

This ban on repeating prayers is cruel, because it makes us feel that God has abandoned us, it robs of prayer, and it tempts us to fall into hopelessness and despair.

Sometimes Jesus teaches us parables in which He says this is like that, but other times He teaches us in parables that say, if that is true, how much more is this true? The parable of the unjust judge is the second kind of parable.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
—Matthew 7:9–11, NRSV

Now let us look at the parable of the unjust judge:

Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, in a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, grant me justice against my opponent. for a while he refused; but later he said to himself, though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.

And the Lord said, listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
—Luke 18:1-8, NRSV

This is a compare-and-contrast parable:

The Unjust Judge
God
The woman asks the judge for justice
We ask God for our needs
The woman does not receive what she needs
We do not receive what we need
The woman keeps asking for the same thing
We keep asking for the same thing
The judge is irritated by the woman’s nagging
God delights in our nagging
The judge gives her what she needs to get her to shut up
When the time is right, God immediately gives us what we need.

Since this is a compare-and-contrast parable, let’s do just that. The first three items are the same in both cases, but the last two are different:


The unjust judge is annoyed by her nagging
God is delighted with his private time with us.
The unjust judge gives the woman what she asks for to shut her up.
When the time is right, God immediately give us what we need.

Jesus says, that if even unjust judges give people what they need to get rid of the nuisance, how much more will God, who is just, give people what they need because He loves them.

There is an Eastern Orthodox saint who speculated that God sometimes withholds things from us, when it is harmless to delay them, to get us to pray more.