Man will always worship, but he must be taught how to pray.
Man must be taught how to pray. While he always worships, he does not naturally know how to pray. Anything or anyone can be worshipped; a false idol, the self, or God. Even if we properly identify and submit ourselves to the true God, however, we still do not seem inherently capable of addressing Him. We are instructed how to do that, either directly or indirectly by our contact with other Christians. Just as the truths and revelations of the Christian faith almost certainly came to us through living, breathing people, so too do we depend upon them to carry on the Christian life, a great part of which is prayer.
This is a rarely discussed point. Those raised within Christian households did not usher forth from the womb with supplications upon their lips. This does not mean that God cannot relate to infants on their own level; quite the opposite. In addition, those who converted to the Christian faith later in life did not pioneer their own completely novel means of communicating with God. Very often, we learn to pray by imitation. We hear models of intercession, thanksgiving, and praise from preachers, parents, missionaries, and even just popular portrayals of clergy and laymen alike. Some from Christian families may have other prayers committed to memory, such as the rather cute “Now I lay me down to sleep…” to the Lord’s Prayer itself (the latter has sadly fallen out of corporate practice for many assemblies).
Besides those two examples, many American evangelical Protestants lack intentional instruction in this regard. This is not to say that those within different traditions do not pray or do not encourage prayer. But look at the prayers themselves. Some resemble a stream of consciousness, with the terms “God,” “Lord,” “Father,” and “Jesus” effectively replacing commas and other marks of punctuation. Is this really the best we can regularly offer up to the Almighty Creator of us all?
I confess I felt a humiliation for the way I prayed: a long list of wishes and demands alongside a shorter list of perfunctory thank you’s, all addressed as to a Great Cosmic Butler or Genie. Once this list was announced, I would continue on with the rest of life with a sort of awareness of God and perhaps even a quiet conversation with Him. I was frustrated with myself because I didn’t have the means or skill to escape this cyclic decline. Some great rhetors I knew could compose beautiful prayers either ahead of time or spontaneously; I could not, no matter how hard I tried in the endeavor. Perhaps this is why my prayer life was anemic and took up little time in the day.
On the other hand, I vaguely sensed something was wrong and that the form of prayer did matter. For example, “buddy buddy” and “Jesus is my girlfriend” style prayers (generally emanating from “praise team” leaders and their cohorts) consistently felt improper as a means of addressing the Almighty God of the Universe. “Jesus is your King, not your homeboy,” I would often complain.
But this itself was hypocrisy. There was nothing kingly or monarchical for me to model in my own experience. I lived in a democratic society and worshipped with a democratic style in a church assembly with a democratic polity. According to my own ecclesiology at the time, my clergy were laymen with education and speaking abilities, little more. There was no royal procession or recession, a standard to which I bowed, a throne to show my obeisance, and certainly no vicarious stewards—nothing to wound or curb by pride or self-reliance. My own worship formed in my soul a notion that claimed, “I’m a free and equal citizen, thank you, not a subject to a monarch.” Form meant hierarchy, tyranny, and spiritual death. I would not submit. No one could tell me how to worship. That’s so un-American. And in this I cut myself off from the Christian heritage. I needed a way to address the Creator of the Universe, yet with an intimacy that recognized He was my Father and my Savior.
It was perhaps this negligence to form and prayer that led to my lukewarm appraisal of the Psalms. I didn’t like reading them, and I didn’t like them to be read. I couldn’t pull out the systematic doctrine from them. When I could, the theology was generally dissatisfying and hard to acquire.
What I failed to realize was that the Psalms were a prayer book for the people of Israel. They were poetical and concrete, not systematic and abstract. The Psalms are to be prayed by the people of God. I suddenly realized how wonderful it was that my parents made me memorize Psalm 1 and Psalm 23; that they always mentioned how glad they were when the congregation would announce, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want….” I came to recognize this beautiful reality only after a larger revelation: the form of worship matters.
Every congregation has a liturgy, but not every assembly has a good liturgy that takes full advantage of the historic deposit and theological instruction of the Church. She will teach those of a humble spirit how to pray. Ours is to lay aside our purported self-sufficiency and our very real pride.
Barton Gingerich is a Master of Divinity student at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and a fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He holds a B. A. in History from Patrick Henry College.