As a Christian, I have sorted through many denominational differences that can be found in the faith. I have looked at different practices and traditions to understand their roots and purpose. Whenever something isn’t explicitly stated in scripture, I am hesitant to follow without further understanding. Therefore, I have chosen to look at the Jesus Prayer. I will be discussing the potential benefits of the prayer, as well as areas of caution.
What is the Jesus Prayer? The Jesus Prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is most popular in Eastern Christianity and within the Orthodox church. Some variations excerpt the last phrase, “a sinner”.
This blog is categorized as follows:
- What is the Jesus Prayer & Its History?
- What Does it Mean & Why is it Used?
- Potential Benefits of the Prayer in Meditation
- Cautions Regarding the Prayer
- Related Questions
What is the Jesus Prayer & Its History?
The Jesus Prayer is a repetitive and formulaic prayer. The prayer states, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The origin of the prayer is unknown, but there are many speculations that can give an estimate. The earliest discovery of the prayer in a similar form was in the 5th century. The prayer is accredited to the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt.
Furthermore, in AD 407, a letter was written by Saint John Chrysostom that held the Jesus Prayer in it. This does not give certainty of the exact author or use during that time. It may have been a popular prayer that was used. Therefore, the exact origin can only be estimated.
The Jesus prayer that is used today most clearly reflects the Discourse on Abba Philimon from the Philokalia in AD 600. This is the earliest source to site the standard version. There are other additional sources that have historically used this prayer.
The Jesus Prayer has been most common in Eastern tradition and Christianity. The Orthodox Church is known for using this prayer. This prayer has not gained as much popularity in the Western world. Most Western denominations are left unmoved by the prayer. However, it has been noted that the Latin Catholic, and Anglican Churches used it in the 20th century.
What Does it Mean & Why is it Used?
The Jesus Prayer is used for repentance, growing in humility, developing clarity of mind, experiencing the Presence of God, and aligning oneself with the Lord. The Jesus Prayer holds many meanings and intentions.
The next sections describe the main meanings and use. I have written this section from the perspective of someone who holds the values of the practice. This section is not my personal bias, but the information I have uncovered through extensive research.
The Power of His Name
The prayer begins by the saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” This is because scripture exalts the name of Jesus. Acts 4:12 states, ” there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
The power that comes from this prayer is because of the name of Jesus. The prayer focuses the attention of the prayer to Jesus. This is intended to clear the mind of confusion and distraction. By focusing on Jesus, these things should fall away.
The Requirement of Humility
The next part of the prayer is, “have mercy on me.” This is to encourage a lifestyle and heart of humility. This statement recognizes that all people are sinners. No one is entitled to anything from God. Instead, all are unable to save themselves. They can never make right their sins on their own.
This statement of humility contrasts the initial pride that brought sin into the world. It takes a stance again the pride that led Adam and Eve to disobey God. Therefore, the first two parts of the prayer recognize the power of Christ and the weakness of man. These two contrasts lead believers to ask for mercy because they cannot compare to the glory of God.
The Two Major Functions
The two major functions of the prayer are worship and developing concentration in the inner life. Worship begins with repentance. This repentance must be sincere, and humble. It cannot be an empty statement that does not have an attitude of repentance alongside the words.
The statement does not have to remain in a position of remorse. The individual can then think of God’s love and forgiveness. He or she can focus on the potential that is available and seek transformation.
Second, is the practice of concentrating one’s inner life. This is done through calming oneself. The individual then focuses his or her attention solely on God and His teachings, which is known as spiritual purification. The five senses are taken under control because they are finite. Through reprogramming the brain, people are able to release animal-like behavior. Thus, regaining control and focus on God’s original intention.
The Three Stages of Practice
The three stages of practice are the oral, mental, and prayer of the heart. In the following sections, I will be explaining each step in order. The stages are progressive. Individuals are advised to take the stages slowly in order to mast one stage before moving onto the next one.
First, is the oral prayer, which is also known as the prayer of the lips. This is the stage that the prayer is said out loud. The prayer is spoken out loud to engage the brain and bring focus and attention to the words of the prayer.
By vocalizing the prayer, individuals are able to recognize how easy it is to become distracted. Thoughts can occur even while saying the prayer. It is beneficial to vocalize the prayer especially when the prayer is a new concept and practice.
Secondly, there is mental prayer. The mental prayer is done silently within the mind. This occurs once an individual has mastered oral prayer. The mental prayer shouldn’t be initiated unless it is natural. Distraction comes easily, especially when an individual isn’t ready for this next step.
This stage is used to connect the thoughts of the mind with the intentions of the heart. When distractions are overcome, the mind thinks solely on the prayer. Once the prayer is the only thought, individuals can then shift their heart to unite with their thoughts.
Prayer of the Heart
Lastly, is the prayer of the heart. This final stage shifts the prayer from a practice to a part of an individual’s identity. The individual begins to realize that he or she is not merely a body with a brain. Instead, they are noetically connected with the diving energies of God. The individual truly recognizes that God dwells within.
In the last phase, the prayer is said without effort. It is like second nature. It is believed to be a gift of the Holy Spirit. People often claim to experience the divine presence of God as well as visions of uncreated light. This stage brings true unity with God.
Potential Benefits of the Prayer in Christian Meditation
The Jesus Prayer has displayed benefits. Many believers would attest that the prayer has developed their prayer life and grown them in their relationship with God. The way that the prayer is formulated can have some positive effects as well.
Cultivating a Desire for God
One major benefit of the Jesus prayer is cultivating a desire for God. It takes discipline and desire to sacrifice one’s time and energy. The time that could otherwise be spent on leisure or selfish ambition, is instead focused on God. By devoting yourself to a practice like this, you are training yourself to prioritize God above all else.
Developing a Regular Prayer Life
Additionally, scripture gives examples of men and women of faith who had strong prayer lives. These heroes of the faith may have not prayed this prayer, but it is evident that they focused their life around communion with God. We see this with Moses, David, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus Himself. These individuals prioritized prayer and communication with God the Father. The Jesus Prayer may be helpful to lead individuals into a passionate prayer life.
Since the prayer is done in a quiet and secluded space, the routine has the potential to lead believers in a structured daily prayer schedule. Other individuals benefit from the guidance of the prayer because they aren’t confident in formulating their own prayers. By praying a structured prayer, believers can develop the practice of prayer and eventually pray from their own mind and words.
Transformation from Truth
Repetitions are not always a bad thing. Repetitions that are similar to that of a mantra of other Eastern religions shouldn’t accompany Christian worship. However, the repetition of scripture and Godly principles can be of value. At times, we do not believe the truth of scripture simply because we read it. We may know the truth within our minds, yet that doesn’t mean we have actually accepted it.
By repeating truths of scripture, we are able to continually ponder them until they become natural to us. I personally have done this with the truths I needed in my life. For example, when I struggled to know God’s love for me, I consistently referred to Psalm 139. I did not repeat it all at once. I did, however, refer to it any time that I questioned God’s love.
The Jesus Prayer can make mental truths a truth of the heart. It can help those who question and rebel against the authority of Christ as Lord. It can also develop humility through the acknowledgment of sin. All people have a need for mercy, yet not all recognize it.
Reframing the Mind
Those who practice the prayer state that it reframes their minds. The mind is chaotic and focused on a plethora of things. The prayer is intended to quiet and silent those thoughts. It reals in any “out of control” beliefs, ideas, thoughts, distractions, anxieties, and worldliness.
The Jesus Prayer reframes the mind to uncover the connectedness that believers have with God. Essentially, the prayer changes the way that one thinks. It brings peace and truth to some. It brings conviction to others.
Romans 12:2 states, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” The Jesus Prayer can strengthen believers to renew their minds and therefore, resist conforming to the world.
Cautions Regarding the Prayer
As I was studying this prayer, I realized that there are many things to be cautioned about. Since the prayer may have originated from Egypt, it is unclear what the initial purpose and use of the prayer was. This is not faulty in and of itself. Yet, when other religions and practices merge with Christianity, it can create confusion or deception. For this reason, I am always careful to understand the original purpose and origin of any practice.
Many Christians would be surprised if they knew where many of the traditional practices of the faith actually come from. Numerous practices in traditional, Eastern and even Western Christianity have been influenced by Hinduism, Buddism, and Islam.
The Lord continuously warned Israel against the practices and worship of pagans. Pagan worship may seem harmless to our own eyes, yet, the majority of it is backed by spiritual darkness and evil. As stated earlier, God desires that we are transformed, rather than conformed.
What may be acceptable to culture, shouldn’t immediately be accepted by believers. This can even pertain to church culture. Believers do not have to take a legalistic approach to all issues. However, they should take an approach of humility and wisdom, seeking to know the will of God in all situations. This goes for the biggest questions as well as the smaller ones. For this reason, the prayer should not be immediately accepted simply because it has the name Jesus in it.
Saints who regularly practice and endorse the prayer make claims that don’t settle with my understanding of the gospel. First, Saint Theophan states, “Only with the help of this prayer can the necessary order of the soul be firmly maintained” (Art of Prayer, pg 92). Saint Theophan is proclaiming that the Jesus Prayer is essential for believers to be fully directed by God.
This simply cannot be true. No prayer or man-made concept can do the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who leads believers in conviction, righteousness, good works, and order. Saying a prayer over and over again will not do this. Titus 3:5 explains, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is the one who regenerates and renews us. It is not our own works, striving or self-righteousness. It is not even in our prayers. This only comes through the power of God through His Holy Spirit, because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Believers are cautioned against relying on anything other than God Himself, no matter how spiritual the act of concept may appear.
Repetitions & Personal Discipline
Orthodox believers use this prayer to tame their minds through repetition. They believe that they can learn to control their minds. This prayer is used to cease distractions so that the grace of God can reside within believers and have control over them. Many pray this prayer so that they can use rational faculties to direct their bodies. They hope that the prayer will help them to follow God in an appropriate way that is in agreement with the teaching of Jesus.
I do believe that prayer is an important part of the Christian walk. Without prayer, Christians cannot gain intimacy with the Father. This is because prayer is direct communion with God. However, I do not believe that one prayer, in particular, does this. There is no secret formula that can be used to achieve a higher level of spirituality or holiness.
A prayer life is what develops a believer. It is God who works through our prayers. Repetition does not have this power without the power of God working behind it. Taming the mind and having discipline does not equate to the type of transformation described in scripture.
Philippians 2:13 explains, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” God is the one who works in believers to move them to fulfill their purposes. Believers must be careful not to confuse repetitions and brain exercises with Godly transformation.
Remade & Renewed by the Work of Christ
Yes, there is some practicality in brain exercises, however, they will never compare to the vastness and glory of God. Believers should not settle for merely physical transformation. They should certainly steward their bodies and minds. They should even use practical, simple, and physical manners to do so. It is good to take captive thoughts and to stand firmly against temptations and things of this world.
Yet, they must not stop there. Believers should hunger and thirst for the spirit of God over any other thing. If brain exercises bring confusion and self-reliance, they should be put on hold. The gospel is not about people doing better and being better. The gospel is about being remade and renewed by the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Warning Against Repetitions
Additionally, Jesus warns again vain repetitions. Matthew 6:7 states, “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Prayer that uses repetitions can lose its meanings. It can become more of a routine, than an intentional time of communion with the Lord.
Repetitions can either help individuals understand and grasp a concept. They can be of aid to help believers truly believe the truth. However, they can also be a means by which people lose the value of a statement. No matter what it is, whenever something is repeated it becomes familiar. With familiarity often comes a lack of reverence and value.
Spiritual Experiences Aside from the Holy Spirit
Furthermore, people who have prayed this prayer regularity have noted spiritual experiences that exceed that of the Holy Spirit. Individuals have been cautioned to ignore apparitions that come when praying this prayer. Apparitions are ghostlike images that can be of people, Theotokos (Mother Mary), or a patron saint. When this occurs, the individual is advised to consult his or her spiritual father for advice. A spiritual father is typically the priest in this tradition.
Of course, it is not wrong to consult other believers for accountability, wisdom, additional prayer, or aid. Yet, the entire Body of Christ should be recognized as having the power of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, I do not believe that Christians should be restricted to only one spiritual father or guide. Having one spiritual leader is not always the case in these types of denominations. Having a spiritual father along with the entire Body of Christ is a more Biblical model.
If numerous individuals are experiencing spiritual experiences that compare to that of other religions, caution should be taken. Visions that are not from God the Father, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit are not Biblical. Other spirituality and religions experience spirit guides, and out of body experiences that are actually led by false spirits.
If this is occurring, there may be something wrong with the intention of the individual going into the prayer. Or, there may be other elements of the practice that aren’t in agreement with scripture as a whole.
Without having prayed this particular prayer, I cannot speak deeply into this subject. However, I am simply bringing awareness to testimonies I have read about other individuals.
Listed below are some related questions with answers that may help you understand Christian meditation and prayer in greater depth. The answers are not extensive, but they do provide a basic understanding of the topic.
What is Christian meditation prayer?
Christian meditation prayer focuses on Biblical passages, their meanings, and the character of God. Joshua 1:8 explains meditation as the following. “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”
In the Old Testament, meditation included scripture. An individual would consistently read the scripture or one phrase of the scripture. He or she would do so to memorize it, or to ponder it. This played a large role in the discovery of the meaning, as well as obeying it.
Today, Christian meditation can look the same. It can also include a prayerful plea for understanding, wisdom, and insight into the scripture. It can be paired with a prayer of forgiveness and repentance. Additionally, it can involve prayer for grace and power to overcome sin. Christian meditation prayers can also reflect upon the character of God, His work throughout history, and how He is working uniquely in your life.
Where is the Jesus Prayer in the Bible?
The Jesus Prayer is not found in scripture. However, it is based on scripture. Various concepts from scripture were comprised to form the Jesus prayer. The first section of the prayer is based on Philippians 2:6-11. This passage describes Jesus, His nature, role, and standing.
In verse 9-11 it clearly explains, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The second part of the prayer is based on Luke 1:35. It reads as follows: “The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Lastly, the prayer recognizes the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. This parable is found in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee prays in pride. He proclaimed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (verse 11b-12).
The correct response was found by the tax collector. Verse 13 explains, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
What is the Most Powerful Prayer to Jesus?
There is no special formula or prayer that possesses more power in and of itself. The most powerful prayer to Jesus is that of a pure heart. The Bible explains in Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Furthermore, powerful prayers are that of faith. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
A simple prayer that is of a pure heart is more powerful than the most elegant prayer. Elegance, performance and worldly standards do not pertain to power in the Kingdom of God. The true power in the Kingdom of Heaven is humility, love, and obedience from a willing heart.