There’s an old joke about three prisoners preparing to face a firing squad. In a flash, the first prisoner comes up with a plan for escape. The sergeant takes him and stands him against the wall and then returns to the firing squad. He begins his countdown, “Ready, aim. . . .” At this point, the first prisoner screams out, “Earthquake! Earthquake!” The firing squad immediately drop their rifles and run off to find shelter. In the chaos, the prisoner escapes. The sergeant is not pleased. He brings the second prisoner before the firing squad. He beings his countdown, “Ready, aim. . . .” At this point, the second prisoner screams out, “Flood! Flood! Run for your lives.” The firing squad immediately drop their rifles and run for higher ground. During the chaos, the prisoner escapes. The sergeant is really mad now. He brings the third prisoner to the firing squad. But this prisoner has a sly smile on his face. He has a perfect plan for his escape and is ready for just the right moment. The sergeant begins his countdown, “Ready, aim. . . .” The prisoner screams out: “Fire! Fire!” (Sorry, the fine print in my ordination vows requires that I tell bad jokes on a regular basis).
Here’s the point: Words matter. They matter in life, and they matter in prayer. That’s one of the greatest advantages of “historical” prayers. They give us words to use when we might struggle to express all that we want to say and remind us of words we may have forgotten we need to say. In the first post of this series (two weeks ago), I offered, for your consideration, one of my favorite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer of confession. In the Book of Common Prayer there are at least two great prayers designed to mentor us in how to confess our sin. As I said, I presented the first one previously.
Here is the prayer from the previous post:
Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you
In thought, word, and deed,
By what we have done,
And by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
Have mercy on us and forgive us,
That we may delight in your will
And walk in your ways,
To the glory of your name. Amen.
Here is this week’s prayer (honestly, I go back and forth as to which one is my favorite):
Almighty and most merciful Father,
We have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against your holy laws;
we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.
But you, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
Spare those who confess their faults,
Restore those who are repentant,
According to your promises declared unto mankind
in Christ Jesus our Lord;
And grant, O merciful Father, for his sake,
That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,
To the glory of your holy name. Amen.
I will admit, it is the prose that first strikes me about all of these prayers. The rhythm, the alliteration, the parallelism, and the pacing all work together to draw us into the prayer so that when we speak it, we express the deep emotion found in every line.
Notice the alliteration:
- We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts
- Restore those who are repentant
Notice the doubling:
- Erred and strayed
- Followed and offended
- We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Note the parallelism:
- Spare those who confess their faults, restore those who are repentant
- By what we have done, and by what we have left undone
- We are truly sorry and we humbly repent
Note the triplets:
- That we may here after live a godly, righteous, and sober life,
- We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
Note the powerful linking of clauses:
- By what we have done and by what we have left undone
- We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
Note the purpose clauses:
- That we may delight in your will and walk in your ways
- That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life
Note the use of the pronouns:
- We have erred
- We have followed
- We have offended against your holy laws
- We have left undone
- We confess
- But you, O Lord, have mercy upon us
- Forgive us
- Have mercy upon us
Now, true, that is all cosmetic. But let’s not dismiss the importance of artistic beauty. GK Chesterton once wisely said: “There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect.” Let me build on that idea by quoting from John Bunyan: “When you pray, rather let your heart be without words than your words without heart.” Beautiful expressions speak loudly. But beauty is only half of the picture. What I love about this prayer is that it gets God right (God is merciful and gracious). It gets sin right (sin is thought, word, deed; it is commission and omission; it is a lack of love for God and for others; it is going our own way, it is a depraved heart; it is a broken relationship with God). This prayer also gets confession right (sin is our fault, and it is first and foremost against God). It gets forgiveness right (it’s not begging with promise of change, but clinging to God’s promises and grace). It’s gets our needs right (it calls us to delight in God’s will, to walk in his ways, and to live a godly, righteous, and sober lives). In short, these two brief prayers get a lot of things right.
But perhaps most of all, the thing that stands out to me about these two prayers is that they help me consider my sin from many different perspectives. It allows me to see it from God’s point of view, from the point of view of my neighbor, and from Scripture; and it frees me from my own self-deception. That point alone is worth the price of the prayer.
See, words matter. And here’s the point: The way we pray not only reveals what we believe, but it also shapes what we believe. Marshall McLuhan said it this way: “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” That’s why it is so important to make sure that our prayers to God are so rich that they can also mentor us as we pray and teach us the truth of God and his mercy, for as we pray, we are changed. Maybe Søren Kierkegaard was right: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.”
If you can only have ten prayers, here’s my advice: take one of these two prayers of confession. Either of these two prayers will change your life and open your eyes wide to God’s glory in grace. Pray it often. Charles Schulz said it perfectly: “Like a ten-speed bicycle, most of us have gears we never use.” Don’t let that be true of your ten prayers.