Friday, June 09, 2006

Free Prayers . . . Are they unacceptable?

Alastair has yet another thought provoking post. This time he tackles the subject of liturgy, mainly the subject of form versus free prayers. Alastair says,

The ‘heroic pose’ that Keillor speaks of is one in which the speaker presents God with his own words, deeming his own vocabulary to be sufficient. The reasoning behind such an approach is that the most authentic way of being is that of spontaneity as opposed to imitation. Prayers of spontaneity, no matter how rhetorically brilliant they are, will always fall short of truly public speech. True public speech is shared language, where the words are not the speaker’s own. Spontaneous speech always falls short, drawing attention to the speaker, who often has a desire for people’s praise.

While I can agree with Alastair that we should pray the promises of God back to him, I cannot agree that free prayers, prayers of spontaneity, in the worship fall short and only serve to draw attention to the speaker. True public speech is one where the language is shared, but does that necessitate that the words are not the speaker’s own? I do not believe this necessarily follows. Can a speaker not be the representative of people? Can a speaker’s own words not be concurred or agreed with by the people, or must they all share a book of prayer and the man must read a book of prayer to be truly public speech. Let us take this example out of the context of worship for a moment. President Reagan famously called for Ghorbachov to “tear this wall down” at the base of the Berlin Wall. Now Reagan was the representative of America, and his words spoke for me, and for thousands of others. The words were Reagan’s own, but they were still public speech because his words represented the will of America. He spoke for us. Why cannot a minister speak for his people in a similar way? I believe he can and does.

Alastair’s next point states,

In handing ourselves over to a language that has been handed over to us in tradition we confess that we do not have the words that are sufficient to approach God. Our verbal works are sinful and poor, so they are not the sacrifice of praise our tongues present to God. The words that we bring are words that have been given to us, words that are not our own. The shared language of liturgy is thus a natural extension of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Our own words are not good enough to approach God. I do admit that no one, no not one, is worthy enough to approach God on his own. Yet, the blood of Christ makes us able to approach the Lord in worship even with our own words. If man’s words are not worthy of approaching God, then they are never good enough to approach God. Man is then only allowed to approach God with the words of Scripture. Man made prayers that have been handed down to us through tradition are not made worthy by the passing of time. If they were not worthy when written, then they are not worthy today. Just because they are not my personal words does not make someone else’s personal words worthy. Alastair does grant later that hymns are sometimes acceptable, but if man’s words are not good enough then why are they good enough in song. The argument Alastair uses for form prayers is the argument often used by exclusive psalmody. A difference is also drawn between private prayers and public ones, but why a man’s words are not worthy in public, but in private found acceptable is not explained.

The other argument brought forth against free prayers is one of self-promotion. While I can see that this may indeed from time to time be a problem it is arguing that the personal faults of some destroy the worthiness of the entire system. Some people may try to show off in their prayers, but that does not mean that everyone shows off in prayer. Some may indeed draw attention to themselves during prayers, but others may not. The few certainly does not out weigh the many. One could just as easily argue that form prayers are bad because people mindless read, and do not understand what they are praying. Reading is not the same as praying; therefore, those who simply read, do not pray at all. Such an attack is probably true for some people. They may indeed not bother to pay attention. But does that necessarily mean the whole idea of a form prayer is corrupt? No, I do not think so. Each way has its own temptations, and it is good to be aware of them, but no way is temptation free.

My real point of contention with high liturgy is found in one of Alastair’s concluding points. One of the things that the Church could really benefit from today is a downplaying of preaching within the context of the liturgy and a denial of the primacy of the preacher. I believe in a liturgy, but one that is a pulpit based liturgy of which I believe free prayers are acceptable. Traditionally the high liturgy is an altar/table based liturgy that stress other elements than the word and the word preached. I am not against form prayers, in fact, we pray the Lord’s Prayer every week and we have responsive readings every week, but I do not think that one can be biblically against a representative free prayer either, which we also have every week.


Alastair said...

Have you read the comments after the post? Most of the issues that you raise are dealt with there. For example, I point out that I have no problem with 'free prayers' per se and I explain what is meant be moving away from the primacy of the preacher.

Lee said...

I did not get a chance to read the abundance of comments (I had some serious problems with blogger and getting anything posted, but that is a story for another time) until this morning. I am glad that you can still appreciate free prayers. I agree with you that we should not value ‘spontaneity’ in prayers above set prayers or form prayers. Yet, I also do not think we should value read prayers over spontaneous prayers either. Prayer is not natural to us, but God is also merciful. He hears and answers our less than perfect prayers as well. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart. I believe either type of prayer can reflect these sacrifices. Neither one can be said to be better than the other. I guess my main point of disagreement with your position is that if someone is not borrowing enough language from Scripture then it cannot serve as a ‘shared prayer’ or ‘our’ prayer. It seems to me that while you rightly decry the rhetorical arts being practiced in a sermon, you seem to want a rhetorical greatness in public prayer. Spontaneous prayers are not better, but neither are they worse that set prayers.

Alastair said...


I do not think that setting 'read prayers' (wouldn't this be far better put as 'the praying of set prayers'?) against spontaneous prayers is helpful. It misplaces the issue. The issue is prayers that are in the language that God teaches us as opposed to prayers that are in our own autonomous language.

It is certainly true that God is looking for broken spirits and contrite hearts over all else. It is my firm belief that the submission of our language to that of Scripture is one way that such a heart attitude is manifested.

To give an analogy, the loving father will joyfully receive a scribbled piece of artwork from his young child. However, the same piece of artwork presented by a teenaged son would not be received in the same way. Given by the teenager such a piece of artwork would probably reflect an unwillingness to submit to instruction.

We should be striving to please God in our prayer. For this reason it is important that we submit to the instruction of the Scriptures and admit that we do not know how to pray as we ought. As we do so the Holy Spirit will give us the words that we need to say. Consequently, set prayers must have priority over spontaneous prayers.

This is not an issue of rhetorical greatness. It is an issue of whose language is being used. Many people have the arrogance to assume that our natural language is as good as the language that God has given us and do not submit to the training of the Scriptures. Those who do will learn how to pray deeply scriptural prayers. When you hear such prayers being prayed you can really pray with them, because they are spoken in a truly shared language. In my experience, such prayers draw attention away from the one praying them in a way that the eloquence of many prayers prayed in a language other than that given to us by the Scriptures do not.

Lee said...


Thank you for your thoughts. They help clarify things quite a bit. I agree that we ought to please God with our prayers, and that we do not know how to pray as we ought. Where I still cannot agree is how set prayers avoid this problem while spontaneous prayers do not. You say "The issue is prayers that are in the language that God teaches us as opposed to prayers that are in our own autonomous language." Fine, but how is a set prayer in the language that God teaches us rather than our own autonomous language. From your statement it could be inferred that only prayers written in Scripture are acceptable. Yet, many set prayers are not straight from Scripture; thus are they not our own autonomous language? Would that not make them just as unacceptable? What about a set prayer makes it not autonomous language? You seem to advocate deeply Scriptural prayers, and I agree wholeheartedly. You do admit that some men can pray spontaneous prayers that are deeply scriptural and thus acceptable as common language. If your post is meant solely as a criticism that some pastors do not know how to pray properly, then I can agree with you. However, you say "set prayers must have priority over spontaneous prayers." This takes a fault of some to an extreme that I cannot endorse. Your analogy is apt. If a child gives a good drawing it is good, but if a teenager gives the same scribble then it is a sign of a problem. I agree completely, but that is more of an argument for making sure the men in the pulpit are sound and experienced men rather than an argument for the priority of set prayers. Yes, those who are babes in the faith should not be leading prayers in worship. In fact, Paul tells us that they may fall to the snare of the devil, which would include the drawing attention to themselves in prayer (in my opinion).

The Bible shows us set prayers are good and acceptable in many places such as the Prodigal Son, who rehearses his prayer before returning. Yet Scripture also shows us that the simple prayer, "Lord I believe, help my unbelief" is a prayer of "great faith". There is no indication that Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple was anything other than a spontaneous prayer. Nor Hezekiah’s before the altar during the invasion of Sennacherib. I do not see any indication that set prayers are to have priority over spontaneous prayers.

I can agree with your criticisms, but I think they are simply criticisms that our pastors need to be godly men who understand prayer, and public prayer. I do not see your criticisms as giving weight to set prayers over spontaneous prayers.