Prayer by Form: Reflections on Bunyan

I dislike where Bunyan’s exposition of Scripture leads me!

I remember my first encounter with written prayer—having grown up such that even the idea of “praying Scripture” seemed shady and questionable—and here, there was a church that called “prayer” this mysterious practice of reading manmade words off a page with our eyes open!

This was surely not prayer.  It was said by heathens, as their other words, outside of church service, quickly testified.  Further, it was too easy to say with insincerity, and indeed too hard to say with sincerity (I tried—reading words on a page can surely not be sinful, I reasoned).  And it was rapidly established to be too little: when the words of form were insufficient for the situation, these dear people found themselves literally unable to pray, without prewritten words to guide their mouths.

I was sad.

Then, some years later, I came to an understanding of this thing called Reformed Theology, and along with it, there was prayers by form.  It began with men reading Puritan prayers from the pulpit, and ends with congregations reading from the Book of Common Prayer—that very same book used to persecute Baptists and other Dissenters—and calling it “prayer,” and indeed whole orders of worship being dictated by the forms of men, and even the daily “prayer” lives of so many being ordered by these “Daily Offices” with special sections for “noon-day prayers” and “evening prayers” and “mealtime prayers” and “birthday prayers” and “anniversary prayers” and even—“opening sentences.”

It is strongly tempting, the idea of just breezing through these things by form, and not needing to peel open my heart and let the Spirit by prayer cut it open and implore God on behalf of my own self.

I have been wrong about so many things, and for years I have accepted that I was wrong about this business of reading prayers.  I have even accepted that perhaps Christ meant for us to recite “The Our Father.”  I’ve never entirely bought it, and yet, so many wiser folk than I advocate it wholeheartedly, and for their opinions I have the utmost respect.

But then there is Bunyan.

I think, fundamentally, that he’s right.  That, first, it is utterly wrong to carry along people by rote and not by Spirit; to prompt them to pray by seeing words on a page rather than Spirit in their hearts.  This invites deception of the heart and ultimately invites blasphemy of the Spirit.  Second, I think he’s entirely right that if Paul and the Apostles dared set no form—handed down none—then we should surely not go where Apostles feared to tread.  And lastly, the point which I am struggling the most over: I think he’s right that prayer is a Spirit-led activity, which no form can ever master.  That prayer has an innate flexibility, an inward groaning, that it is a ministry of the Spirit and by the Spirit and deeply reflective of our own situations and struggles.  Which, by comparison, a form of prayer would be like a broken clock: perhaps right twice a day, but in essence, useless, and not a clock.

Which is not to say that God cannot use forms.  I know I have found them convicting, all the moreso the closer they are to Scripture, and yet I have not found them more convicting that reading a good book, or reading Scripture.  I think it is easy to confuse inward agreement and thought-provocation with praying.  Yet this surely makes prayer into too small of a thing, unlike the descriptions we find of it in Psalms and Jesus’ words, Ephesians, James, all of it.

Prayer is huge.  Prayer is effective (James 5:16) not because it’s some magic words that we can wave at God, but because it is a work of the Spirit (Romans 8:26, Ephesians 6:18).  God promises over and over again to respond to our specific prayers—Philippians 4:6, John 15:7, Luke 11:9, Mark 11:24, Jeremiah 33:3, Psalm 34:17, Matthew 18:19, James 5:13, Proverbs 15:29, 1 John 3:22—we are called to bring our own selves to prayer, through the Spirit.  And God promises to answer according to what we have prayed—in the Spirit.

Prayer is a living ministry of the Spirit.  That’s an amazing idea.  Every time we open our hearts to pray, it is a miracle.  Every prayer is formed and winged by the Spirit.

A recitation, however well-meant and genuine, may be a good, God-glorifying recitation, but it isn’t what Scripture seems to call “prayer.”

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