You may have seen prayer ropes in movies or used one yourself but do you actually know what they are and what the Bible says about them?
What is Christian prayer rope? A Christian prayer rope is a piece of rope with a specific number of knots that was used by Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians to keep track of their prayers. They usually repeat “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me the sinner” or some other variant for each prayer. Prayer ropes are not required for the Christian faith and encourage legalism and the devaluing of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
When I began writing this post I knew very little about prayer ropes. However, my research has made it clear that, although they were well-intended the application and practice of using a prayer rope is ultimately unhelpful and actually draws you farther away from Jesus, instead of closer to him.
Definition of Prayer Rope
Prayer ropes have been used by Eastern Orthodox Christians and Catholics for thousands of years as a way to track their prayers. They are mostly used by monastics in these groups although they are used by lay people as well.
To use a prayer rope you hold the rope in your hand and move your thumb from knot to knot for each time you say the required prayer.
Sometimes you will pray at a specific time at church at which point you will be told what to pray and how much, and at other times it will be just you doing it during your daily routine.
When you pray independently you traditionally pray using the Jesus Prayer or the Prayer of the Heart. Each time you say it, you move from one knot to the next. This is intended to help you do the required number of prayers.
Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me the sinner.The Jesus Prayer
Prayer ropes come with varying numbers of knots. Some have 33 to represent the life of Christ, while others have as many as 100, 300, or 500 knots. They are also made with varying materials like satin, wool, and sometimes beads.
Origins of Prayer Rope
The prayer ropes are monastic in origin, meaning that they were primarily used by monks and nuns. They are still used by monastics today but are also used by lay people as well.
The story goes that there was a monk who attempted to tie the knot in the prayer rope but the devil kept coming and taking it out.
Then he had an experience with an angel who showed him how to tie knots like crosses so that the devil couldn’t untangle them.
A Biblical View of Prayer Rope
The Bible does not talk about the use of prayer ropes and they are not essential to the Christian faith. The Bible does not mandate the repetition of specific prayers or contain the Jesus prayer. So why do people use them?
The prayer ropes are rooted in tradition, not in Scripture.
It is similar to how the Pharisees instituted extra laws to help them keep the existing ones. The Bible does say to pray without ceasing however, it says nothing about prayer ropes or doing prayers as a form of penance.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.1 Thessalonians 5:16-16 ESV
Ultimately practice of using a prayer rope is not biblical for two main reasons. First, it encourages legalism, and second, it does not encourage people to embrace the fact that they are alive in Christ.
Prayer ropes encourage legalism because they emphasize a relationship with God that is built on works instead of faith. The Bible very strongly opposes a faith based on works. It is part of what makes Christianity unique.
In the book of Galatians Paul writes to churches in Galatia who were falling into similar patterns. They began to look to Jewish tradition in addition to believing in Christ to be saved.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.Galatians 2:15-16 ESV
Prayer ropes reinforce this idea that you have to do something to earn God’s favor or blessing. It is by God’s grace that we don’t have to rely on works, and when we participate in these kinds of traditions that ignore that we are valuing Jesus’ sacrifice as less than what it is.
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.Galatians 2:21
Embracing Life in Christ
Another result of using prayer ropes is the devaluing of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ died for us to be free from the law and to give us new life. What is it saying to God when we don’t accept the gift he gave his life for?
When you pray “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me the sinner” over and over again, you reinforce this idea that you are a sinner when in fact the Bible calls you a saint.
You will sin, but God has already forgiven you and given you a new identity.
You don’t have to walk with your head down praying for forgiveness all the time. This borders on legalism as we discussed before but it also devalues Jesus’ work on the cross because it forces you to apply only a small percentage of the gift that Jesus’ sacrifice paid for.
Jesus paid for you to be spiritually alive in him, free from sin and death, a new creation, and a saint.
How can you walk in these truths if you are constantly declaring a different, false identity over yourself?
Scripture shows that we are alive in Christ through faith in the Son of God, implying that before that we were dead in our sin.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:20 ESV
Scripture also tells us that if we are in Christ then we are a new creation. Our old identity as a sinner has passed away and the new identity, a saint, has come.
Prayer ropes hinder your ability to walk in this new life that Jesus paid for by keeping your eyes focused on your identity as a sinner when that is simply not true.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV
The usage of prayer ropes was well intended for helping you “pray without ceasing” however it has taken on a legalistic nature and prevents people from applying the full work of the cross to their lives. They may have been rightly motivated, but are not good for practice.