The Jesus prayer and The Just Prayer

For hundreds of years Christians, especially those of the Orthodox tradition, have prayed what has become familiarly known as the “Jesus Prayer”:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

In more recent years others, especially those of a more evangelical persuasion, have been praying what we might call the “Just Prayer,” as in

Lord, we just want …

followed by whatever word or thought “just” happens to occur next.

Now there is nothing wrong with just wanting something. But that little word “just” may be used so often and so thoughtlessly that it is more like the sloppy “umms” or “likes” that mar so much common talk. It becomes more of a throwaway filler than an intelligent part of meaningful prayer.

A friend of mine joined a group of some very devoted people who met to pray for guidance about a potential mission project in Africa.

As the session began he was bewildered at the rapid back and forth pace of the prayers. “As fast as one person stopped praying another would take it up,” he recalls, “until there was hardly a second’s pause in the flow to take a breath.”

But what bothered him most was the repeated use of the word “just”, as one after another would pray

Lord, we just want to ask you …

Lord, we just want to hear you …

Lord, we just want to know what’s on your heart …

Lord, we just want to listen for your voice …

As it went one he became so upset at what seemed to be the lack of any authentic relationship reflected in the prayers, that he broke in with his own.

Lord, we just want to hear your voice so much that we’re going to be quiet for the next
five minutes so we can hear you.

“It seemed,” he said, “as if we were praying for each other’s benefit, not really wanting to hear from God.”

I asked whether there was some quiet after his interjection.

“For about two minutes” he smiled, “and then the rapid exchange picked up again.”

These were sincere people, he emphasized, who loved the Lord, and who thought prayer was important. But there was a certain carelessness in the words they used that seemed to undermine the very reason they were praying: to respect God’s sovereign desires, and to understand his holy will.

When we pray, we are coming into the presence of the King. And which of us would enter an audience with our own sovereign president, prime minister, or royal ruler, and allow our speech to be filled with “uhhs”, “likes”, “you knows”, or “whatevers”?

I think we would want to heed the admonition of the ancient Teacher/King who in Ecclesiastes recommended that we choose our words carefully.

Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2

“Just” can be “just” right

“Just” is a short and very useful adverb, which can mean “only”, “simply”, “precisely”, or ”barely.”

It can express a singular appreciation: “That’s just what I wanted.”

Or a polite signal to wait: “Just a minute, please.”

Or biting frustration: “Now just hold on.”

Or admiration for integrity: “The just man justices” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).

“Just” is also a significant biblical term. It describes the kind of God we serve. “Upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4)

Nor is it out of place in prayer. A centurion who wanted Jesus to heal his mortally ill servant, yet felt unworthy to have Jesus come under his roof, sent some messengers to tell Jesus not to trouble to come.

I did not presume to come to you. But just speak the word, and let my servant be healed. (Luke 7:7).

Note: it is precisely because he feels unworthy, and does not want to be presumptuous, that the centurion says: just speak the word. And he says it out of a deep respect for the authority he sees in Jesus. As he explains,

I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.

When Jesus heard this he was amazed and turning to the crowd said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:8-9) And in a few minutes the report came that the servant was indeed restored to good health.

What’s the point of the story? That words matter. That the way we use words expresses the genuineness of our faith. The centurion’s commands were very specific – go, come, do – because he expected them to be heeded.

So this pagan Roman officer knew how to pray to Jesus better than the Jewish elders, When he said “just” that was exactly, precisely what he meant. The exactness of his words expressed the reality of his faith.

He seemed to understand what many of the quiet Quakers have taught us: when you pray, let your words be few.

Unlike the centurion’s servants we pray not as slaves, but as sons and daughters who through Jesus have the most privileged and intimate relationship to our Father who is in heaven.

So we should pay attention all the more to what Jesus said to his disciples about praying to this holy Father:

Let your words be ‘Yes, Yes’ or “No, No” …

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases …

(Matthew 5:37, 6:7)

So, the next time you or I find ourselves praying, “Lord, just …” let’s stop, and ask: what we really mean? And only then say “just” what it is we want to ask for. And then stop and wait, and perhaps add our own “Jesus Prayer”:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me … and just say the word that I need to hear and heed.

Leighton Ford,

August 2009

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