The Jesus Prayer


Recently I read Elisabeth Elliott’s fine book, Keep a Quiet Heart. One of her chapters describes the “Jesus Prayer.” It is a prayer that arose in the Orthodox tradition over 1,000 years ago. Though the prayer appears in various wordings, its most basic form goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Ten short words, all of them simple and easy to understand. Sometimes the phrase “a sinner” is added to emphasize the petitioner’s deep personal need. When praying together, the word “us” is substituted for “me.” Orthodox Christians have used this little prayer as a central part of their devotional life for centuries. It is easy to see why this prayer has endured. In a sense, it covers everything that we might pray for. It is a prayer addressed to the right Person–“Lord Jesus Christ,” in the right Position–“Son of God.” And its one request summarizes all that we might ask from the Lord–“Have mercy on me.” Since we are truly sinners before the Lord, anything he does for us must be an act of mercy. We have no claim on anything the Lord has, and if we approach God thinking that he owes us something, our prayers will bounce off the ceiling and hit us on the head. Do we need health or wisdom or guidance or strength or hope or do we petition the Lord on behalf of our children, our friends, or our neighbors? Whatever it is we need, no matter what words we use, it is mercy, the pure, shining mercy of God that we seek. But did not Jesus warn us against vain repetition? Yes he did, and it is “vain” repetition that he condemns. Any prayer can be “vain” if uttered carelessly or from a heart of unbelief. And any prayer–though said a thousand times–can be a true prayer to God if it comes from a heart that seeks him. Elisabeth Elliott notes that when her husband Addison Leitch was dying of cancer, they often prayed the “Jesus Prayer” together when they seemed to have “used up” all the other prayers. She concludes by saying, “I recommend it to you.” And I do, too. During a recent sickness, I found myself in bed fighting a sharp pain that would not go away. As I tried to pray, the words of the “Jesus Prayer” came to mind. I would not tell you that the pain departed instantly, but I would say that those simple, ancient words brought peace to my soul. When you need the Lord, the “Jesus Prayer” is a good place to begin.

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