One complaint about Christian living (made by Christians!) that I hear quite often has to do with how certain practices could make someone feel that he or she is not ‘being real’. It is as though if one doesn’t authentically and initially feel like doing some activity or other (e.g., reading the Word, praying for thirty minutes every morning, fasting – who ever feels like fasting?!) – then it shouldn’t be done: otherwise, it’s hypocrisy. Or so the thought goes.
And apparently there is Scriptural backing for this line of thought: Jesus condemned the Pharisees and scribes by saying: ‘You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me. . .’”’ (Matt. 15.7-9a). We are to avoid the hypocrisy of ‘lip-service’, the thought goes, lest we become like the Pharisees. We only worship truly when our hearts are ‘in it’.
Like my last post here, in this post I would like to consider this idea that feeling like doing thus and such should precede doing thus and such. ‘If I feel like praying, I should pray; if I don’t, it’s forced and therefore fake – so I shouldn’t do it.’ Or, ‘If I feel like giving to the poor, I should; if I don’t, it’s hypocritical . . . ’ Examples could be multiplied easily. One specific example I would like to look at is that of rehearsed prayers – i.e., prayers which are written out in advanced, perhaps even memorized, and finally recited in the presence of others; as opposed to ones which are spontaneously given and therefore ‘real’.
Do rehearsed prayers fall in the category of pharisaical lip-service? Let us reason. What exactly about rehearsing one’s prayer seems less than authentic? Does it have to do with writing it out? Or memorizing it? Or reciting it verbatim? Perhaps it’s something about prayer that is so, well, spiritual that it should be spontaneously offered rather than prepared in advance. None of these conditions seem to me to disqualify rehearsed prayer from being authentic. Here’s why.
Many activities in the Christian’s life beside prayer – e.g., preparing and delivering a sermon, writing a Sunday school Bible study lesson, fasting, and even writing this blog! – involve and require preparation and practice. And these activities are not necessarily preceded by vast amounts of ‘good feelings’ to till the soil of the soul. (Printing out the sermon manuscript or cutting out the Biblical characters made of construction paper aren’t exactly good-feelings-inducing activities.) Furthermore, why would feelings need to precede activity in order for it to count as authentic, anyway? What is it about feelings that make any human activity more authentic? Is it less authentic for a CPA to do taxes without any ‘good feelings’? Surely not – the IRS will take their money irrespective of feelings, of either the CPA or even yours for that matter! But isn’t there something about prayer which is so qualitatively different from doing taxes, or writing blogs, or even writing sermon manuscripts? Isn’t prayer so intimate an exercise that it requires feeling and spontaneity in the way that a sermon or tax report doesn’t?
In a way, it is true: there are times when, as the book of Romans tells us, ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words’ (8.26). But, just as there are such deep, personal, intensely ineffable prayers, there are also ones which are more formal, even formulaic: Indeed, is not the Lord’s prayer itself (Matt. 6.8-13) such an example?
I see no reason, then, why prayers which are rehearsed and recited cannot count as authentic, even magnificent, prayers. Would it be even better that prayers are attended to with great feeling and passion? Sure – but what says prayers which are memorized and later recited can’t be so attended? . . . indeed, perhaps all the more so having been cogitated over and cherished in the deeper recesses of the soul.