Most often we pray because we want something in our circumstances to be changed. We or someone we know is facing a particular problem, a difficult situation, an obstacle of some kind, something that we feel is keeping us or them from the good that we believe God desires—and so we pray.
There’s nothing wrong that. We are, in fact, encouraged often in Scripture to pray exactly for those reasons—always, of course, entrusting the situation into God’s hands for God to accomplish the purposes God desires.
But there is another dimension to prayer, in some ways more powerful than this more popular perspective on prayer: it’s the way that prayer changes us.
The practice of soul-shaping prayer—known by other names, too, sometimes called “imprinting prayer”—is praying with the goal of allowing the prayer itself to change us, to change the way we think, the way we feel, to change the way we see the world around us, the way we look at our circumstances and make sense of our experiences.
Of course, all sorts of studies have described the health benefits of consistent prayer or meditation—all that reducing external stimuli, slowing your breathing, focusing your thoughts, creating emotional and psychological distance from your circumstances and problems, and so on, helps in all kinds of ways. But I’m talking about prayer that shapes our souls, prayer that shapes the way we think, the way we feel, the way we live our lives from the inside out.
All prayer can be soul-shaping. Just having a consistent practice of prayer in your life will inevitably shape the way you view the world, the way you look at others, the way you live out your faith as a follower of Jesus. Sometimes, though, it is helpful to engage in some intentional soul-shaping prayer: a spiritual discipline which has a long history in the life of the Church.
You don’t need much to practice this kind of intentional soul-shaping prayer.
First, you need a set prayer worthy of reflection and repetition. Prayers that have been tested by time—like the Lord’s Prayer, or the Magnificat, or the Twenty-Third Psalm—are great for this, and you can find dozens of good, time-tested prayers online or in prayer books of various kinds.
Many readers of this blog have been influenced by Anabaptism or Evangelicalism or other non-liturgical Christian traditions, and so might be a little suspicious of set prayers. These are someone else’s words, not ours, so we fear insincerity, a dishonest heart before God or others. But of course insincerity is possible even with spontaneous, extemporaneous prayers, and we can certainly pray set prayers with deep sincerity—in fact, such open honesty before God is vital for this prayer to change us.
Second, you need time and willingness to pray this prayer repeatedly and thoughtfully. Once again, our red flags go up. Didn’t Jesus condemn the babbling, repetitious prayers of pagans, thinking they will be heard because of their many words? Yes, he did. Jesus condemned a magical view of prayer, that particular words have particular power in themselves, that if you pile up all the divine names and magical words you can think of you’ll somehow be able to coerce the gods into giving you what you want.
And that’s exactly what “soul-shaping prayer” is not. It’s not about coercing God into giving you something, nor does it attribute the set words with any sort of magical power. Rather, it’s about prayerfully reflecting on the ideas behind the words, and allowing God to shape your thinking and your feeling and your will and your actions in the process.
Which leads to the third thing you need: a heart open to being changed by God as you pray. This is the goal of intentional, soul-shaping prayer. The goal of this kind of prayer is not, “God give me this!” or “God, do this for that person!” It’s “God, change my mind, my heart, my soul, change my life from the inside out.”
Let me walk through what this soul-shaping prayer can look like—at least the way it works for me—and to do so I want to use a prayer that comes out of Mark’s story of blind Bartimaeus, healed by Jesus.
The prayer of Bartimaeus in this story—“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”—has been transformed into one of the most frequently prayed prayers of Christian history, the so-called “Jesus Prayer.” The Jesus Prayer takes the prayer of Bartimaeus, combines it with the prayer of the tax collector in one of Jesus’ stories (Luke 18:13, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”), mixes in the most common early Christian confessions (“Jesus is Lord,” “Jesus is the Christ,” and “Jesus is the Son of God”), and creates a prayer perfect for soul-shaping: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner!”
When might I pray this prayer? Maybe it’s a moment in which I feel the need to confess a particular sin. Maybe it’s a time when I am at a loss as to what to do, or I’m feeling like people or circumstances are conspiring against me—in other words, a time when I feel the need for God’s mercy. Or maybe it is simply prompted by a desire to reflect on who Jesus is, to remind myself of who it is I’m following.
I begin by quieting my surroundings—closing the door, turning off the music, maybe going for a walk or a drive, finding that place of quiet solitude. Then I pray the prayer through several times, gradually more slowly, taking time to reflect on each idea in the prayer, paraphrasing each word, each phrase, pondering what it means for me.
- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, the sinner!”
- “Jesus”—you are Jesus, the man from Nazareth, the one who healed the sick and touched the lepers and embraced the children and ate with sinners and taught the disciples and confronted the powers and suffered for others and died and the cross and rose from the dead. You ate with sinners! Have mercy on me, Jesus. You healed the sick! Have mercy on me, Jesus.
- “Lord Jesus”—Jesus, you are Lord over all, you are my Lord, I am yours, all is yours. You are Lord over my life, my circumstances! Have mercy on me, Jesus. You are Lord over nations! Have mercy on us all, Jesus.
- “Jesus Christ”—Jesus, you are Messiah, Son of David, bringer of God’s kingdom, establishing peace and justice through your self-giving, suffering love. You are the Suffering Servant, the Crucified Messiah! Have mercy on me, Jesus.
- “Son of God”—Jesus, you are the Son of God, God the Son. You are the one who shows us who God is, you are God in the flesh! Have mercy on me, Jesus.
- “Have mercy on me, the sinner”—I am a sinner, I am right there with everyone else, doing things that destroy myself and others, doing things that degrade others and all creation, doing things that defame you, O God. I am one of those “sinners” you ate with, Jesus, those outcasts which you embraced. Have mercy on me, Jesus.
- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner!”
This is how I might pray the Jesus Prayer as soul-shaping prayer. And in the process I become like Bartimaeus: I am changed, I see things more clearly, I become a better follower of Jesus.
I’m reminded of who this Jesus is who I am following—and so I have greater confidence to follow him more faithfully, my Lord, my King, my God.
I’m reminded of what he came to do, how he lived and how he died—and so I seek to do the same things, to embrace the “other” and teach Jesus’ followers and confront this world’s evil powers and give myself in suffering love for others, all to help bring God’s kingdom of peace and justice to the earth, just as it is in heaven.
And I’m reminded both that I am in need of God’s mercy, and that God willingly shows his mercy to me in Jesus—and so I try to show mercy to others around me, who are all in the same boat as I am.
I suspect many Christians have practiced soul-shaping prayer without calling it that. For at least some this is a new and even strange way to pray, something outside our normal experience of prayer: of thanksgiving, or confession, or petition, or intercession.
Regardless, I encourage everyone to try this intentional, soul-shaping prayer—and see if God doesn’t begin to change your attitudes, your values, your perspectives on your circumstances, the way you look at other people, the way you live your life each day.