You pray more often than you realize
Prayer is far more common than we realize, that is, if we take the meditations of the Book of Psalms as a guide. There we encounter the Bible’s own prayerbook but what we discover often are meanderings and ponderings of the one praying. We might call these prayers the sorts of things we do sitting alone on a porch in the morning sun or in our muttering thoughts when we are out for a walk. Eugene Peterson, one known for his love of the Psalms, has often said people pray far more often than they may know and thus feel guilty for not having done (pray) what they have in fact done. To think prayer can be reduced to the intentional times of structured and conscious prayer is a mistake. Prayer can be the heartbeat of our ponderings.
Where have we learned to pray?
Where, we might ask, have we learned to pray? In my recent book, To You All Hearts Are Open, I reflected on learning to pray especially from my father and my pastor, as well as from the Psalms and prayerbooks. C.S. Lewis tells us that he spent afternoons pacing in his rooms at Magdalen College praying the Psalms in the Coverdale translation. (It’s my favorite translation of the Psalms.) The Psalms were Lewis’s instructor in prayer. The same can be said of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eugene Peterson. Many have also learned to pray from books of prayers. I have benefited from the prayer books of John Baillie, Walter Brueggemann, Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher, Stanley Hauerwas, and Janet Morley.
The most common form of prayer: petition
No statistics are available, but I’m willing to speculate with full assurance that the most common form of prayer is petitionary prayer, asking God for something.
Who taught us how to approach God with our requests? What concerns me is how we have learned to barge in on God. We say, in effect, “Dear God, give me this or give me that, and then how about this, too?”
Here the biblical forms of prayer have much to teach us. In fact, perhaps the best way to teach a theologically reverent approach to God in petitions is to take a long look at the Anglican Collects.
Think about the Collects
The Bible’s own approach to Asking God reveals a fullness that is often missing in our petitionary prayers. The Collects, which bring into a concise and tight formula the pattern of petitions in the Bible, instruct us in crisp and clear language how to approach God reverently with our requests.
A few years ago, because the Collects had taught me so much and because I thought many could benefit from them, I wanted to devote time to a study of the theology of prayer in the Collects. Having observed the common order at work in the Collects, I planned to go through all the major Collects in The Book of Common Prayer to sort out their theology of prayer.
Kris (my wife) and I planned a two-week visit to the island of Naxos in Greece as a kind of mini-sabbatical – some study in the morning, touristing in the afternoons, evening dinners and long walks. In the mornings with the Aegean breezes sweeping through our room, I read through the Collects a dozen or so times, sorted out the various elements of the Collects, assigned the words of each of the Collects to an element, and then took a long look at a messy manuscript interesting to probably no one but me – and probably not to me for long. An editor friend agreed.
Alongside studying the Collects, I mustered together the prayers of the Bible, and a good place to start is the old All the Prayers of the Bible by Herbert Lockyer, made more enjoyable because they are in the English of King James. The Bible’s own prayers often had enough of the elements of the Collect that I was willing to say the Collects are a concise Christian-ized version of the various elements of the Bible’s own prayers. But I needed more to make this into the book I had in mind, so I began to explore petitions outside The Book of Common Prayer. Eventually, the book came into form, but not without recommendations from a good editor.
Think about God
What the Bible and the Collects have done for me is to teach me to think about God before I form my petition. It sounds to me that many don’t think about God enough and so just wander into their petitions. I am not one to spend much time criticizing the prayers of others, but I do readily admit that praying the Collects all these years has raised my expectations for Anglicans in how they ask God for something. If we would study their forms, we will learn a more reverent approach to petitions.
Here’s a model petition. We recite each Sunday at Church of the Redeemer the Collect for Purity, perhaps my favorite collect:
- Almighty God,
- to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid:
- Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
- that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
- through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Notice that this prayer can be separated into five elements. The five elements in order are, in my own terms,
- Address God: What do you call God? Father? Almighty God?
- Remind God: What about God implies it is fitting for God to answer?
- Ask God: What do you want from God? Say it.
- Expect God: What will you do when God answers your request? Do it.
- Access God: How do you access God’s presence?
These elements are found already in various prayers in the Bible. Here is one example from Deuteronomy 9:26-29. Again, I will add the various elements.
26 I prayed to the LORD and said, “[Address] Lord GOD, [Ask 1] do not destroy the people [Remind 1] who are your very own possession, whom you redeemed in your greatness, whom you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 [Ask 2] Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin, 28 [Expect] otherwise the land from which you have brought us might say, ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to let them die in the wilderness.’ 29 [Remind 2] For they are the people of your very own possession, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.”
As this prayer illustrates, natural prayer doesn’t follow strict formulas. There are two reminders of what it is about God that prompts the “Ask God” element, which also happens twice, and the Expect God pertains to God bringing glory to God by being faithful to the promises. This Expect God could be explained as another Remind God element.
There are many prayers like this in the Bible, and in To You All Hearts Are Open I go through a number of these. But there is a reverential respect at work in this prayer. The reverent approach of this prayer in Deuteronomy is a template for a more reverent approach for us.
Praying more Collect-ly
I make this suggestion. Pause before you enter into the presence of God. Formulate in your mind your petition. Then, with your petition in mind, think about God and what it is about God that makes your petition fitting for God to answer. Then with that fit between God’s goodness and power in view, consider the implications in your life if God were to answer your prayer.
Again: Ask God – Remind God – Expect God and then Address God as you think most appropriate for that petition (“Almighty God” is very common in our Book of Common Prayer for a reason), and then utter your prayer. The Access at the end reminds us all over again that everything we ask is rooted in the redemptive work of God through Christ.
The form of the Collect is a more reverent, biblical approach to petitionary prayer than the all-too-common – let me say it – theologically careless, irreverent, and inconsiderate approach of many. Let us go to God, reminding God that God in his good power is worthy of the petitions we carry.
The Collects teach this as they have shaped the biblical prayers into a form for our instruction.
Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, a Deacon and Canon Theologian to Bishop Todd Hunter, and an author of To You All Hearts Are Open and A Church called Tov. You can subscribe to Scot’s Substack newsletter here.