Public Prayer

By Orrin Root

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,

Uttered or unexpressed;

The motion of a hidden fire

That trembles in the breast.

Such is the classic definition by a poet whose own experience of prayer must have been deep and wide. When one knows God, every feeling of elation is praise, every joy is thanksgiving, every need or yearning is petition, and all these are encompassed in prayer.

Public prayer, however, is at once more and less than this. It is more because it lifts to the skies the praise and yearning of a dozen or a hundred or a thousand souls, rather than just one. It is less because it cannot include the unexpressed and sometimes only half realized desire of any soul.

It is more because mathematics is Heaven-designed and must exist in Heaven as on earth. If the Father takes delight in the praise of one of his children, how can he fail to take multiplied delight in the praise of a hundred? If the prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:16), if the united request of two is sure of a response (Matthew 18:19), how sure is the power of the prayer of a thousand!

Yet public prayer is less than private prayer because it must be put into words. Only thus can it become public, but thus it loses some of the deepest feelings of praise and yearning—those that escape the limitations of language and can be borne to the heavenly throne only by the wordless intercession of the understanding Spirit (Romans 8:26).

Yet the words of public prayer can awake those yearnings they cannot express, can make the hearers conscious of that “hidden fire that trembles in the breast.” So the tones of public prayer come to the Father’s ear enriched by countless overtones unheard on earth—the deep, inexpressible yearnings that cluster about the theme of the prayer but are not quite expressed in its words.

So public prayer is worthy of more consideration than it usually receives. A thoughtless prayer is a powerless prayer. Not by accident does one man attain such sympathy that he expresses accurately the united feeling of a whole congregation. Much less does he by accident awake those slumbering, unrecognized yearnings that need only to come into consciousness to be real and effective prayer.

What Are You Doing?

What is it to lead in prayer?

First, you are speaking for the group. You are expressing the thoughts and feelings of that united congregation, not your own thoughts and feelings.

Expressing the prayer of a group is a matter of sympathy, of actually and sincerely feeling what is felt by the group. Only to a few is such sympathy altogether natural. Most of us seek it, cultivate it by conscious effort. And it can hardly be attained at all by anyone who does not know the people whose prayer he speaks.

Second, in public prayer you are leading. You are not merely expressing the thanks that are already prominent in the minds of your people; you are bringing each one in the group to feel a thankfulness of which he was not conscious before. You are awakening in each hearer a sense of deep and pressing need that only God can supply; and you are leading each hearer to call upon God with sincere yearning, though that yearning may have been slumbering unnoticed a moment before.

Never belittle eloquence in public prayer! Never scoff at vigorous utterance or poignant phrase! Some have been condemned for praying to be seen of men, it is true (Matthew 6:5). But the condemnation was not for their eloquence; it was for their motive. They sought praise for themselves.

When one leads others in prayer, it is his plain duty to speak so eloquently and winsomely that the hearer’s heart will cry, “amen.” The leader must pray so powerfully and persuasively that each person in the group recognizes the prayer as his own, though he is not aware of it till he hears it in the words of another.

Do It Definitely

If the trumpet gives an uncertain voice, who will prepare for war? If the spoken prayer is vague and indefinite, who will really pray? We pray for the sick, the needy, the lost, the missionaries on the foreign field. What sick, what needy, what lost, what missionaries? Do we know? Or—grandest generalization of all—we ask God to bless all those around the world for whom it is our duty to pray. The long, sonorous sentence has a large and satisfying sound. With one sweeping petition we have discharged our full duty of prayer—we have prayed for everybody we ought to pray for.

But actually, have we prayed at all? If our request is moved by duty rather than by desire, is this prayer? If we do not know whom we are praying for or what boon we are asking in his behalf, can anyone believe that our cry rises from our hearts or reaches to the heart of God?

You can ask a neighbor to lend you an egg or give you a lift in his car. But can you ask him without asking him something specific? And when we ask God to bless us, the effectual, fervent prayer is the one that rises from a deep sense of need for some specific blessing. The public prayer may arouse that proper sense of need. This is leading in prayer.

You can thank someone for a gift, but “thanks for everything” means nothing unless “everything” means some specific things to both the speaker and the hearer. You can praise the janitor for a spotless room or the preacher for a thoughtful sermon. But can you praise anyone without praising him for something definite? Try it and see.

God wants our thanks and hungers for our praise, even as we who are made in his image desire the thanks and praise of others. But too often our public prayers utter thanks for his blessings when no one in the congregation has any particular blessings in mind or any particular thankfulness in his heart. Too often we praise him with our lips while our hearts are far from him because we have not named any specific thing that is praiseworthy.

The one who leads in prayer cannot name all God’s blessings, of course. But he can name some. And after naming some, he can mention that there are countless others dear to our hearts—and if he does this movingly, he can send the mind of each hearer racing on to name silently the thing that is dearest to his heart. This is leading in prayer.

Most difficult of all, perhaps, is leading in the confession of sins and the plea for forgiveness. The congregation may have its corporate sins, but it does not have many that the entire congregation recognizes as sins and is willing to repent of. And in public prayer, certainly you are not going to confess that Brother Miser is stingy, or ask the Lord to forgive Sister Gabout for her continual nagging.

You may have to resort to general terms: “Forgive us our sins.” But you can do more than that. You can mention our longing to be free from sin. You can plead for the light of God to illumine each of our hearts—now, in this hushed moment—that each one of us in his heart may find and face his own sin and call in penitence for divine grace. Perhaps thus you can help a sincere soul to repent and be cleansed. This is leading in prayer.

Prepare to Pray

If these thoughts are valid, then the finest public prayer is not one uttered on the spur of the moment. There is much to be said, perhaps, for the custom of having different people lead the prayer of the congregation; but there is not much to be said for the custom of asking a man to pray publicly without a moment’s notice.

A ready speaker, perhaps, can lead a short prayer without preparation, and do it admirably. In our programs of worship, many prayers are short because they are limited in scope. The invocations ask for the presence and blessing of God. The prayers at the Lord’s table are overflowing thankfulness for the tremendous sacrifice by which we are redeemed, and humble rededication to the Redeemer. The offering prayer speaks thanks for material gifts and presents a portion of them as a token to the giver of all. And the benediction should not be prepared in advance—at least not so rigidly that it cannot be reshaped to fit the theme of the service it brings to a close.

But a meeting for worship often has one prayer that is not so limited. We may call it the morning prayer. Its function is to gather all the elation and joy, all the sorrow and guilt, all the manifold thankfulness, all the deep need of a whole congregation and bear them to the throne of grace—yea, and to awake the slumbering sense of gratitude, to revive the guilt forgotten but not forgiven, to call to mind the dire needs that sometimes pass unnoticed in the pressing clamor of things of this world. All this is not done without forethought. P. Y. Pendleton was one of the most fascinating and powerful speakers I have heard. Much as I admired his preaching, however, I once remarked to him sincerely, “Sometimes I think your prayer is worth more than your sermon.”

Just as sincerely he replied, “Sometimes it has more preparation than the sermon.”

I was an apprentice, eager to learn the minister’s craft. “How long does it take to prepare a prayer?” I demanded.

A quizzical grin tugged at the corners of his Irish mouth. “How do I know?” he countered. “I’m preparing all the time. I never go into a home without getting closer to the hearts of my people there. What do they have? What do they appreciate? What do they need? What would their prayer be if they prayed as they ought to pray? These are the things that go into the making of the prayer on Sunday morning.”

Since then I have led in prayer hundreds of times—or thousands. Yet not often have I had the satisfaction of feeling that my prayer was adequate—that it represented as well as possible the hearts of my people.

After all our study and thought, perhaps no prayer of ours is more pressing than the disciple’s plea of long ago: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

This article is adapted from one that appeared in the August 16, 1958, CHRISTIAN STANDARD. Orrin Root was serving then as editor in chief of Bible school publications at Standard Publishing.

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