What is the Jesus Prayer and Why Do People Pray It?
- Heather Riggleman Author
- 2019 2 Aug
Have you ever felt like you weren’t sure how exactly to pray? Did you feel like prayer was a formula that you never got quite right? Especially when you listened to others pray out loud? I have too.
I’ve felt stupid and insignificant early on in my walk with Christ as I listened to members of my Life Group lift up long, eloquent prayers to God.
Mine was simple, “Lord, have mercy on me. I sin on a daily basis. I need your help.”
As I grew in my faith and my walk with the Lord, I learned my prayer was a form of The Jesus Prayer and just how much God loved hearing my words as much as those eloquent prayers. The reason behind it is powerful: my heart was humbled before God.
Perhaps what captures the essence of the Jesus Prayer can be found in Luke 18:13 when a tax collector and a Pharisee were praying. The Pharisee gloated to God and said, “At least I’m not as evil as other people. At least I tithe and I fast twice a week.”
However the tax collector was humble before God. He was aware of his sin. He was aware of this shortcomings.
“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.'”
The Jesus Prayer consists of the words of the tax collector: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
These words have become powerful prayer words to meditate upon and to pray to God. But why might you ask? Or perhaps you question:
What is the Jesus Prayer and why do people pray it?
The origins of the prayer have been widely taught throughout the history of the Orthodox Church. The orthodox tradition taught followers that besides being aware of the heart pumping blood, it is a place of communion with God by means of unceasing prayer.
This is loosely based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
The prayer was part of the tradition known as Hesychasm.
Hesychasm is a form of Christian mysticism found in Eastern Orthodoxy. It rose in popularity in the 1300s. Hesychasm uses contemplative prayer, especially with the repetition of the Jesus Prayer in meditation to experience union with God. This requires one to block out all senses and to dial down one’s thoughts while focusing on the words and meaning of the Jesus Prayer.
The Jesus Prayer, according to numerous Church Fathers, is "essential" to our spiritual growth. The Jesus Prayer proclaims our faith and humbles us by asking for mercy for our sinfulness. Keep in mind, Hesychasm is neither beneficial or Biblical. It is not quite the same as Eastern practices, but more along the lines of Buddhism.
The origins of Hesychasm is found supposedly in Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Jesus was telling us not to be like those who pray big prayers to be seen as a righteous person. Rather, God loves and honors those who are humble in heart and pray because they truly want to talk to God.
However, Hesycahsts take this a step further, they believe the words “go into your room” really mean “go into yourself.” In a sense, they believe that Jesus intends his followers to separate themselves from all intellectual and sensory inputs.
The ultimate goal is unity with God—a pure connection with God. However, Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:6 were never meant to be taken literally. Jesus meant he didn’t want us to pray as a way to show off as the Pharisees did.
Contrary to Hesychasts and mysticism, Jesus didn’t want us to pray as a mere ritual or mediation technique.
He certainly doesn’t want us to think the only way to connect and commune is subjective. Examples of a well-intended prayer life are found in John 16:23-24, Philippians 4:6, Psalms 18:6, and James 5:16.
There are multiple benefits to the Jesus Prayer:
In a study by George Stavos, P.h. D. “The Impact of Contemplative Prayer on Psychological, Relational, and Spiritual Well-Being: A Study of the Jesus Prayer,” found that practicing the Jesus Prayer for ten minutes a day for 30 days, sitting quietly, increases one’s perception of their closeness with God. It was also shown to decrease levels of hostility, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, and anxiety.
In The Fathers of the Church it is indicated that the Jesus Prayer does have tremendous impact on the soul of the person. St. Barsanuphius the Great (6th cent.) states, “Unceasing calling upon the name of God cures one not only of passions, but also of actions; and as a medicine affects a sick man without his comprehension, similarly the invocation of the name of God destroys passions in a manner beyond our comprehension."
When we pray the Jesus Prayer, we are honoring the fact that Jesus is our Lord.
He is the second person of the Trinity. He is fully man and fully God. He is the Lord of our lives. The Lord freely directs our path to himself. His name, Jesus Christ, is the name above all names. It means Savior.
When we pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ,” we acknowledge his Lordship and the salvation we have through him. He is the one who can pull us out of the pit of sin and set us free from what entangles us. It reminds us he alone can transform us. The phrase “Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” reminds us of the Trinity and incarnation. One God, three persons.
It reminds us that Jesus was both fully God and fully man—innocent of all sin. It reminds us that it should've been us hanging there on the cross.
It reminds us of God’s love and humbles our hearts in thankfulness and awe of who he is what he has done for us. It leads us to thank God for who we are in his eyes.
When we ask him to have mercy on us, it reminds us we are incomplete; we are broken without him. When we say, “Lord have mercy on us,” we are inviting him to dwell within us, to live within us, to be transformed into Christ on a daily basis.
There are no prayers our Father God is unable to hear. He has power over all things and knows all things. He is not limited in what he can do nor is he limited in the words or lack of words in our prayers. This means we should take Hebrews 11:6 seriously and confidently. We should pray completely and confidently, convinced God hears our prayers and is more than capable of answering every request according to his will.
Heather Riggleman calls Nebraska home (Hey, it’s not for everyone). She writes to bring bold truths to marriage, career, mental health, depression, faith, relationships, celebration and heartache. Heather is a former national award-winning journalist and is the author of Mama Needs a Time Out and Let’s Talk About Prayer. Her work has been featured on Proverbs 31 Ministries, MOPS, Today's Christian Woman and Focus On the Family. You can find her at heatherriggleman.com
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