This last year I’ve been using the Book of Common Prayer on a regular basis to help guide my prayers. Twenty-year-old me would have been surprised to see thirty-three-year-old me praying written prayers from—what would have seemed to me to be—an ancient book. Even that might be a bit too generous. Twenty-year-old me might have been appalled!
So why would I—a low church, Baptist—find prayers written by someone else useful? More specifically, why would I find the written prayer in The Book of Common Prayer called The Litany useful? It’s because praying the Litany on a consistent basis reorients me to the fact that I live each moment of my life by the grace of God alone.
I believe that we live, breathe, and have our very being in God’s grace and his grace alone. God’s grace is not exclusive to those paradigm-shifting, “aha” moments that are obvious examples of God’s grace in our lives. Maybe—like me—you grew up in a setting where testimonies were focused on the extraordinary acts of God’s grace toward us.
But God’s grace is not only for the extraordinary moments in life. God’s grace is for the ordinary moments in life too. God’s grace comes to us in the mundane.
The uncle your whole family has been praying to come to faith finally puts his trust in Jesus. The black sheep of the family finally gets sober and decides to be baptized. Struggling to make ends meet the single mom miraculously gets an anonymous check in her mailbox with enough money to pay three months’ rent. No doubt these are examples of how extraordinary God’s grace towards us is.
But God’s grace is not only for the extraordinary moments in life.
God’s grace is for the ordinary moments in life too. God’s grace comes to us in the mundane.
His grace comes while changing diapers at three in the morning. His grace appears while sitting in traffic on the freeway listening to sports radio rants about the Los Angeles Lakers. His grace breaks through while watching the news explain a politician’s latest statement about the price of a barrel of oil.
God’s grace is present while cooking a pre-made dinner from the market all while keeping one eye on a daughter who is playing and another daughter who is struggling to do her homework because her sister won’t leave her alone. God’s grace not only comes to us in the extraordinary moments in life.
God’s grace is ever-present in each and every ordinary moment too. The prayer known as The Litany brings me back to sensing God’s grace in the mundane. So what kind of things does The Litany lead me to pray through?
- Inordinate and sinful affections
- Hardness of heart
- Church leadership
- People who have strayed from the faith
- Government officials
- The homeless and the hungry
- Widows and orphans
- The lonely
- Strength to mortify sin
- Ears to hear God’s word preached
John Calvin wrote, “We testify by prayer that we hope to obtain from God the grace he has promised.” God has promised us grace, not just for the beginning or major moments of our Christian life but for the entirety of it.
God’s grace sustains us while we sit in the coffee shop studying for midterms. God’s grace sustains us when our interaction with that co-worker stirs up pride. God’s grace sustains us when walking into court to pay a traffic ticket. God’s grace sustains us when we travel across the country for our fourth job interview. God’s grace sustains us when we sit at church on Sunday and hear the word proclaimed.
God’s grace is for the ordinary Christian life.
Praying a written prayer, like The Litany, which covers the mundane aspects of life can reorient me to this truth. Of course there are other written prayers besides The Litany. Some which are biblically faithful, gospel-centered, and Christ-exalting in their content.
But the question still remains, even though some written prayers might meet all these criteria, should we be using prayers written by someone else anyway?
Should I Pray Written Prayers?
Growing up I was taught to allow my prayers to be “Spirit led.” This phrase can be a bit ambiguous but David Clarkson captures the essence of what it means to pray “Spirit led” prayers. A “Spirit led” prayer is one which allows the Spirit to guide, shape, and form our petitions.
“He [the Holy Spirit] prepares and disposes, incites and inclines the heart to make requests… He puts the heart into a praying frame, and sometimes excites us so powerfully, as we cannot withhold from pouring out our souls before him.”
For some—depending on the tradition you grew up in—praying written prayers will come as naturally as breathing. Yet for others—those who like me didn’t grow up praying written prayers—the notion of praying someone else’s words will seem foreign at best, if not downright hypocritical. It will smack of religiosity or cold formality.
Perhaps, you might reason, the prayer was “Spirit led” for the one who first wrote the prayer, but surely it can’t be “Spirit led” for me! I’m being led by the author, a mere human, and not the Spirit!
That was how the Baptist preacher, John Bunyan thought about written prayers. He even says so about the Book of Common Prayer—the very book I find myself being drawn to pray from! He writes that, “those prayers in the Common Prayer-book, were such as were made by other men, and not by the motions of the Holy Ghost, within our hearts… The scripture says, that it is the Spirit as helps our infirmities; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with sighs and groanings which cannot be uttered… it does not say that the Common prayer-book teaches us how to pray, but the Spirit.”
Am I and others who are drawn to pray written prayers starting off on the wrong foot by turning to a formal, written prayer instead of allowing the Spirit to “lead” in a spontaneous manner?
John Owen, who was a contemporary of Bunyan, said that “constant and unvaried use of set forms of prayer may become a great occasion of quenching the Spirit.” Owen recognizes the danger of praying set prayers without owning them for oneself, treating the prayer as if it were a charm or an incantation. He knows that some people will perform these prayers as a mere duty.
But this doesn’t always have to be the case.
You can make a formal, written prayer your own. Though Owen finds it hard to believe, he does believe it is possible.
You can conscientiously “own” a set prayer. This shouldn’t be so hard to believe. Those of us who grew up in settings that were averse to set prayers actually prayed several set prayers each Sunday at church. We just didn’t know what we were doing.
Typically these prayers were projected onto a wall! Each time we sang a worship song written by someone else we were making the songwriter’s prayer our own. We were praying someone else’s written prayers but none of us had a problem with it.
Why? Because we understood that you could merely repeat the words on the screen as a rote exercise or you could take those words as directions for expressing the content of your heart.
I suspect that the latter also occurs when we make set prayers, like The Litany, our own. You can feel free to adopt the words of biblically-based, gospel-centred, Christ-exalting prayers written by someone else as our own. I would encourage you to find written, historic prayers, like The Litany that help you to articulate the content of your heart as you pray to God. Doing so has been helpful for me and it might be helpful for you too.
 I am referring to The Litany as it is found in The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Version (Downers Grove: IVP, 2021).
 David Clarkson, The Works of David Clarkson, 3:208.
 John Bunyan, A Relation of the Imprisonment of Mr. John Bunyan (London: James Buckland, 1765), 130.
 John Owen, Pneumatologia, Chapter 8, 301. https://ccel.org/ccel/owen/pneum/pneum.i.xiii.xi.html