The Jesus prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January

In Psalm 123.3, the psalmist asked the LORD to show grace to his people. Quote it? Why sure.

Psalm 123.3 NRSVue
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.

The Septuagint translated it ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς, Κύριε, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς/eléison imás, Kýrie, eléison imás, “Mercy on us, Lord, mercy on us.” And in Jesus’s Pharisee and Taxman Story, it comes up again.

Luke 18.9-14 NRSVue
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

To this day you’ll hear Christians pray a variation of Psalm 123.3, plus the taxman’s prayer, and Jesus’s name for good measure. We call it “the Jesus prayer.” It’s a really simple, really popular rote prayer. Probably the simplest.

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, υἱέ τοῦ Θεοῦ (or υἱέ Δαυὶδ/“son of David”) ἐλέησόν με, τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν/Kýrie Yisú Hristé, yié tu Theú, eléisón me, ton amartolón. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Sometimes it gets shortened all the way down to Ἰησοῦ ἐλέησόν, “Jesus have mercy,” or Χριστέ ἐλέησόν, “Christ have mercy,” or Χριστέ ἐλέησόν, “Lord have mercy.” But no matter the form it takes, it’s the “Jesus prayer.”

It’s similar to what Bartimaeus shouted at Jesus to get his attention. We pray it for the same reason. We want mercy.

Mark 10.46-52 NRSVue
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Good for him. ’Cause when we pray the Jesus prayer, sometimes we get naysayers who object to our praying this prayer. “Stop the vain repetitions. Mt 6.7 KJV That’s not how Jesus taught us to pray!”

Actually it is how he taught us to pray. In his story of the unjust judge, he taught us to be persistent, to cry out to God day and night, and not lose heart. Lk 18.1-8 This is that. It’s the prayer equivalent of a knock on the LORD’s door. It’s not a vain repetition; we’re not praying it for no reason. (Better not be, anyway!) We’re knocking so the door might be opened to us. Lk 11.9 Sometimes we gotta knock more than once. Sometimes we gotta get loud. But when we mean it, we’ll get his attention. He’ll hear. And respond.

A meditative prayer.

The Jesus prayer is so short, Christians often use it as a “breath prayer”—you can say “Lord have mercy” as you inhale naturally, and say “Christ have mercy” as you exhale naturally. Some Christians pray the long version in two parts: Inhale with “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”; exhale with “have mercy on me, a sinner.” Doesn’t have to be a crazy-long breath.

Why pray like this? ’Cause we’re gonna meditate. The breathing, and the specific focus on Jesus and mercy as we’re breathing, helps us focus on God, and fill our minds with him.

No, it’s not a brainless mantra. This is Christian meditation, not eastern meditation. The goal isn’t inner peace: The goal is a relationship with God. Yeah, inner peace is a fruit of the Spirit, so it’ll happen anyway, as a side effect. But don’t trade God for side effects!

We’re shoving aside every thought that has nothing to do with God, and embracing every thought which does have to do with him. We’re calling out to God, not psyching ourselves into some state of bliss. We’re listening to him, not aiming for a blank mind. We want Jesus’s mercy, blessing, wisdom, insight, revelation, anointing, power, prophecy, healing—whatever he’s willing to give us as we fill our minds with God and his word.

But if we don’t know how to articulate what we need—and if we aren’t yet any good at praying in tongues—we can still do as centuries of other Christians have done before us: We can pray the Jesus prayer.

Part of why Christians use the Jesus Prayer for focus is because it’s not a vain repetition. We totally mean it when we pray it. Some Christians call it “the prayer of the heart” because it’s how we oughta think, deep down. We always need God’s mercy. When we’re listening to God, when better to tell Jesus, “Have mercy on me”?

It invokes the proper humble attitude we need whenever we approach God. He gives grace to the humble. Jm 4.6 We’re recognizing, as we recite it, that though we’re Jesus’s friends Jn 15.15 and God’s children, Jn 1.12 though we have a special status with him which gives us full access to his throne, He 1.16 it’s not because of anything we achieved. It comes entirely by God’s grace. Ep 2.8 This prayer reminds us of this fact. We recognize Jesus’s lordship and our position beneath him. We’re ready to receive mercy.

So it’s hardly a vain repetition. In fact I find it a very useful repetition—a prayer Jesus answers pretty immediately. No, not because it’s a magic formula that’ll grant us three wishes. It’s because its request isn’t for stuff, but for mercy—for God’s gracious, generous attitude towards us. Really, it’s for God himself.

The way God shows us mercy may look nothing like the idea we have in mind. Which is fine. He’s a lot more creative than we are. So let’s never pray the Jesus prayer with specific, unrealistic expectations in mind. Let’s pray it only to get God, and have him pour out his grace in whatever form he likes.

Simple. But profound.

Biggest mistake people make about the Jesus Prayer is to assume that because it’s short, it’s weak. Childish. Too simple. And kinda pointless: “All I’m doing is calling upon Jesus? Not asking for stuff? I thought the point of prayer was to make our requests known to God. Pp 4.6 I want stuff. What good’s this?”

Well, like I said: It’s not a request for stuff, but for God himself. You realize what that means? You realize what it really means when God answers this prayer—as he’s eagerly willing to do? You don’t just get stuff. You get God. You make contact with the Almighty.

You get God’s presence. There’s a lot included with his presence. Not just his might and power to cure things, fix things, fill us with joy and power and revelation and light, and train us to see the big picture like he does. The fullness of God includes blessings you never expected, or even imagined.

You get God’s mercy. There are lots of things in this world to stress us out, frustrate us, make us miserable, make us despair. But God’s generous, gracious, forgiving attitude adjusts our thinking about such things. We grow to realize he’s far mightier than they are. We learn to be generous and gracious and forgiving, like he is. We hand him our worries, and watch him take care of us. Ps 55.22, 1Pe 5.7 Or let us know how small our worries really are.

And you get God without having to first become an advanced-level Christian. Anybody can pray the Jesus Prayer. Kids can pray it. Takes no time to memorize. Isn’t hard to practice. Can quickly become a regular practice.

So why isn’t it a regular practice for most Christians? Well, we never bother to start. Or we get it in our heads that rote prayers are dead religion. Again, not if we mean ’em! Pray it and mean it.

When to pray it.

Obviously we can pray the Jesus prayer wherever, whenever, under any circumstances. When don’t we need God’s grace?

The custom in the Orthodox Church is to pray it in the morning, during daily prayer and meditation time, for about 10 to 15 minutes. It’s not a strict custom; any time of the day will work. And if you can only pray it for five minutes at first, that’s fine. Work your way up.

The other custom is to pray it whenever you’re doing activities which don’t involve a lot of brainpower. Like walking, driving, doing the dishes, folding the laundry, raking the lawn, scrubbing the bathtub—that sort of thing. Instead of counting sheep in order to fall asleep, swap it with the Jesus Prayer.

And of course when you’re stressed, upset, angry, distracted, and need to be mindful of God, that’s always a good time to start reciting it. ’Cause God’s presence will definitely change our attitudes.