The prayer of Jesus – Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog
“I don’t know what to pray for. I’m not sure how to pray right now. I’m not even sure I want to pray, but I know I need to. I’m just a mess.
Have you ever felt this? We all have. Whether we are faced with the stark nature of our depravity, the consequences of sinful choices, the devastation caused by grief, the crushing weight of setbacks, or a feeling of simply being overwhelmed,
… We can be so spiritually exhausted, or spiritually numb, that the thought of prayer is just too intense. We don’t know what to say, how to feel, which can break down the complexity of our feelings. We know we need to pray, but we have little spiritual or emotional strength to begin with.
This is when you have to say the Jesus Prayer, one of the oldest of all prayers, and it’s just one sentence:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. “
Its origin is unclear. Aspects of meditative prayer such as Jesus’ prayer date back at least to the time of the ancient Egyptian desert monks, as seen in the writings of Evagrius Ponticus (d. 339). “The standard form of Jesus’ prayer,” writes Kallistos Ware, “is found first in the Life of Abba Phelmon. He was an Egyptian monk, living … in the 6th century. Jean Climaque, in the 7th century, was the first Greek writer to refer to it with the expression “Prayer of Jesus”.
It is clearly of scriptural origin. “Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2: 6-11), “Son of God” (Luke 1: 31-35), “have mercy on me” (Luke 18: 9-14). The Orthodox Church has taken up prayer and developed its use for prayer and meditation. Ware notes that a Jesus-centered spirituality gradually developed around its use, in which four main elements can be distinguished:
Devotion to the Holy Name “Jesus”, who is felt to act in a semi-sacramental way as a source of power and grace.
The call to divine mercy, accompanied by an acute sense of compunction and inner grief.
The discipline of frequent repetition.
The quest for the inner silence of stillness; that is to say for a prayer without image and not discursive.
It may be more than you want to know or, more likely, more than you want to try to contemplate while praying. The simplest thing is that there are times when you have nothing more to breathe to God other than a few words. And throughout history, even the brevity of Jesus’ prayer is sometimes reduced to a simple prayer: “Jesus, have mercy” or even “Jesus”.
Many years ago I remember counseling a fellow pastor who had wrecked much of his life and ended up, for a brief period, in a jail cell and then in a mental health facility. He said throughout this experience, all he could pray over and over again was, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And that might be all you can call to pray too. The good news?
This is more than enough.
James Emery White
New Catholic Encyclopedia, Second edition, vol. 7.
The study of spirituality, edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright and Edward Yarnold.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and principal pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can browse past blogs in our archives and read the latest news on church and culture from around the world. Follow Dr White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
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