“It’s not just that the entire psalter is a collection of written prayers, authored by God’s people and authorized by the very Spirit of God, which Christians have sung and prayed and read for centuries.” — W. David O. Taylor

I grew up in a tradition that prized spontaneous prayers. In our “Bible church” congregation located on the north side of Guatemala City, where our missionary family lived during my childhood years, the preacher would pray such a prayer before giving the
sermon and the worship leader would often end the time of musical praise with an extemporaneous petition for God’s blessing.

Such prayers were felt to be genuine, authentic, and above all, real.

This stood in contrast to the sorts of prayers that my Catholic school friends prayed at mass every Sunday. Such prayers, recited often from memory, were of the written sort. As we Protestants perceived them, their book-bound prayers stood for the “letter” that “killeth,” to borrow the King James rendering of 2 Corinthians 3:6; they belonged to the category of “human” traditions that distorted the gospel, we thought, and they represented the kind of uninspired, insincere, and above all, rote prayer that quenched the Spirit.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I discovered how wrong we had gotten the Bible and how much we had lost in our relationship with God by rejecting the gift of crafted prayers.

It’s not just that the entire psalter is a collection of written prayers, authored by God’s people and authorized by the very Spirit of God, which Christians have sung and prayed and read for centuries. It’s also that Jesus himself assumed the goodness of prescribed prayers. He taught his disciples, in fact, how they ought to pray, and the early church adopted that prayer, conventionally known as “Our Father,” as a normative practice for worship.

As with the words of the psalmists, a written prayer enables us to say exactly what needs saying to God when our own words may escape us, and they help us to pray what needs saying continually to God when our words betray us to self-absorbed or even vainly repetitious tendencies. We ought to never tire, for example, of praying the penitential words of Psalm 51, or the exultant but compact language of Psalm 100. The same can be said of the Lord’s Prayer. Prayed with a sincere heart, it remains fresh every time. Prayed regularly over the course of time, it forms the heart and mind of Christ in us.

To pray a written prayer, whether by the Cappadocian bishop Basil the Great (ca. 330-379) or by the English poet Charles Wesley (1707-1788), is likewise to receive the “living faith of the dead,” as the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once put it, as a gift rather than as an imposition. We do not, that is, discover the shape of our faith in opposition to those who have gone before us and who have bequeathed to us a record of their prayers; we discover it instead within and among the communion of the saints.

As far back as the Book of Psalms, then, God’s people have found immense benefit in reading written prayers and in writing out their own prayers. This isn’t to say, of course, that there’s no place for the spontaneous cries of the heart. I’ve been repeatedly blessed over the years to participate in communities who’ve prayed beautiful prayers “of the moment,” and I pray such prayers all day long. But I’ve also found great benefit in reading the prayers of the faithful who have modeled for me a life of steadfast devotion to God — prayers by the Spanish Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila, or by the English archbishop Thomas Cranmer, or by the Scottish pastor John Baillie, among others.

So while, for some of us, it may feel at first uncomfortable or strange to pray such prayers, if given a chance, which can be integral rather than antithetical to biblical faith, a written prayer has the power to sustain us in our knowledge and love of God and to inspire our own life of prayer, which the 17th-century poet and pastor George Herbert once described as “the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.”