Guest Blog from Stephen W. Hiemstra
In prayer, we communicate with God. The form and expectations of our prayer is shaped by our theology. In fact, I have found prayer to be the most theological written form.
Prayer takes many forms.
I have a neighbor who believes prayer is primarily happy talk that we say out loud. Blessings, she will say, waving her hands as someone might toss confetti. A variation on this theme is the committee chair who prays primarily to gain the approbation of committee members, as if they were the only ones listening. Still another variation is the worship leader I know who will sometimes just stare out into space and spontaneous start cloying out loud.
These examples point out that people’s theology really does affect how they pray. To whom is the prayer addressed? What assumptions does a person make about whether and who may be listening? What exactly is the content of the prayer?
The Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father among Catholics, provides a template from Jesus on how to pray. We read in the King James version:
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. (Matt 6:9-13 KJV)
This prayer appears in the form of a letter with both an address—our father which art in heaven—and a closing—For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever, Amen. Older Greek manuscripts omit the closing so the English Standard version ends with the reference to evil, as originally intended. Later copyists interpreted the prayer as a letter form and added the closing.
The letter form is helpful in distinguishing prayer from happy talk, effusive hosting, and poetry or if there might be confusion as to whom the prayer is addressed, as might happen in the pantheistic context of the first century. Today, philosophers quibble over different types of speech acts, where fives purposes of language arise: Tell people how things are, try to get them to do something, commit ourselves to do something, express feelings, and bring about change (Vanhoozer 1998, 209). When we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we do several of these things, but most importantly commit ourselves to model our actions on earth after God’s will in heaven.
A second important biblical form of prayer is the lament, which ties an expression of grief to praise (Card 2005). In the Psalms, the two parts are separated by a conjunction (“vav” in the Hebrew). After you pour out your grief and anger to God, you turn to him in praise. Many Psalms—think of Psalm 22—are written as laments. The third Beatitude mirrors this form (“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4 ESV)) in that praise brings us hope and comfort. Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane also hints at lament: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39 ESV) Here we see intense emotion (crying out to God) followed by obedience (praise through action).
Lament can also be considered a free verse, biblical form of poetry. Hebrew poetry takes the form of repeating an idea using different words. Consider: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 1:2 ESV) Hebrew poetry appears in many forms throughout the Bible.
Prayer Forms Based on the Bible
Many liturgical prayers simply rewrite a psalm in modern English. The idea is not so much to plagiarize the psalm as to make sure that all the topics of a good prayer get covered. The psalms themselves use this technique in different ways. For example, the psalms themselves are thought to have be designed to teach the Books of Moses (Wenham 2012). Other times, one psalm will summarize another psalm and repurpose it. For example, Psalm 116 (psalm of praise) is a crib notes version of Psalm 18 (narrative psalm; Hiemstra 2019).
Another form is the centering prayer, which focuses your attention on God before advancing to other topics. For many years, I repeated Psalm 8 as a centering prayer. Centering prayer can actually be used therapeutically. The Jesus Prayer (Lord, forgive me, a sinner) can be used therapeutically as a centering prayer to substitute for rumination , obsessing about the past so much that the present and future are ignored.
An ACTS Prayer
Many of my written prayers take the form of an ACTS prayer, where ACTS is an acronym for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Steady Hand is an example of an ACTS prayer taken from my book—Everyday Prayers for Everyday People:
All glory and honor are yours, Lord,
for you are my fortress and
like a hand on my shoulder.
Why do I fear; why does my grip falter?
that my faith hangs by a thread—
for I know that someday my strength will fail and
my only hope is in you.
for a new day and
the opportunity to serve in your name.
In the power of your Holy Spirit,
grant me the strength to be the person
you created me to be—
fully present to those around me.
In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.
Again, the acronym is helpful in reminding the author of the components of a complete prayer.
Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. [Also: Experience Guide]. Colorado Springs: NavPress. (Review)
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2018. Everyday Prayers for Everyday People. Centreville, VA: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2019. Joy in Salvation. Sermon given at Centreville Presbyterian Church. April 3 (Transcript).
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There Meaning in This Text? Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review part 1; part 2; part 3)
Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review part 1; part 2)
Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra (MDiv, PhD) is a slave of Christ, husband of thirty years to Maryam, father of three, author, and volunteer pastor in Hispanic ministry. Stephen writes on Christian spirituality in English and Spanish. He is a member of Capital Christian Writers Fellowship. (CCWF) His most recent publication is Simple Faith, April 2019. He blogs four times weekly at T2Pneuma.net, including a podcast on Mondays. t2pneuma.net, stephenwhiemstra.net