Misunderstanding the Jesus Prayer

Jesus Icon'

A couple of months ago I blogged about the “Jesus Prayer” (May 15, 2013). After posting that blog, someone requested to be removed from my blog (ouch!). There wasn’t any reason stated for this request, but I think it might have to do with the subject of the Jesus Prayer. After getting over the initial “blow” of feeling rejected (hey, I’m a “feeler” with thin skin, but the Lord’s been working on my co-dependency issues), I realized there might be some misunderstandings about the Jesus Prayer and how I use it.

First, the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is simply a way to humble myself in the sight of the Lord (James 4:10). In recent days, I’ve become more aware of the state of my soul. I’m beginning to sense when I am getting “too high on my horse” or too overconfident in my abilities. The Jesus Prayer is a check to remind me that I am always in need of God’s mercy, and that my spiritual state without His grace and mercy is that of a sinner.

Some react to this idea because it sounds like I’m condemning myself – calling myself a “sinner” all the time. “Doug, you’re not a sinner; you’re a saint!” Yes, I am a saint. And I am a sinner. I’m both. Theologically, I am not under the judgment of sin because of Christ’s mercy. But I am still functionally a sinner in the original sense of the word. The Greek word for “sinner” is harmartolos. It is actually an archery term for “one who misses the mark” (in other words, misses the bulls-eye). In the context of spirituality it constitutes those choices that cause me to live “less than” the righteousness of God. As a Christ-follower, I seek to live God’s righteousness under grace wholeheartedly (Matt  6:33), but I still “miss the mark sometimes. “Sinner” is not my identity in Christ, but it is an honest description of where I am when I start living for myself. The intention the Jesus Prayer is to get back to my true identity as a humble child of God through Christ.


I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but I sense tremendous freedom when I am humbled. I am in the better place where I can learn from others and hear what they are really saying. It keeps me from having to justify myself or defend myself (what I call “going sideways”). It also keeps me on the firm rock of my identity in Christ, rather than floundering in the quicksand of the “Doug Lee ego.”

I also pray the Jesus prayer when I get overwhelmed. My former tendency in facing challenges was to “react and work it out as expediently (and painlessly) as possible.” But the Jesus Prayer reminds me that even though I am not in control, Jesus is in control. Always. That’s why the first part of the Jesus Prayer is so important: Jesus is the Lord, the Christ, and the Son of God. It also calms my soul to wait on His solutions and to ready myself in knowing that He wants me to work through life’s challenges, not around them. But He is always there with me and my job is simply to follow Him. Again, freeing and transforming.

Some might have some objection over the word, “mercy,” as if it is too specific to pray for this all the time. Many of us have been taught that mercy means “not getting the punishment we do deserve” while grace means “receiving the favor we don’t deserve.” And while those simple definitions are great as pithy sermon points, they really short-change the meaning of those powerful words – especially “mercy.”

Anthony Bloom, writer (“Beginning to Pray”) and Orthodox Bishop, gives some insight on the word “mercy.” The Greek word we translate as “mercy” is eleison. This is actually an agricultural term that has to do with “olives” (the branch, the fruit, and the oil). In Middle Eastern culture, the olive is powerfully symbolic for divine blessing. If you remember the story of Noah, the sign of peace/shalom was the dove bringing the olive branch. If you recall the story of David, he became King (the representative of God to lead people) with the anointing with olive oil. Or think about the story of the Good Samaritan, who brought healing to the victim on the road by pouring … olive oil on his wounds. These are all examples of “mercy.” So it stands that we need God’s mercies all the time, not just when we first come to Christ. And it’s so much more than “not receiving just punishment.”

So I hope that clarifies a few things about the Jesus Prayer. I love it because it is so simple and “portable.” In those moments when I quickly need to change my attitude and focus, I can pray those few words in a breath, and it really makes a difference. I find it as a powerful tool to help us live out our Whole Life Worship of God.

10 thoughts on “Misunderstanding the Jesus Prayer

  1. Hey Doug,

    Have you read ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’? It’s an autobiographical account of a Russian pilgrim who grows hungry for the Jesus Prayer as a means for obtaining unceasing prayer of the heart. (1 Thess. 5:17). It’s a phenomenal, and fairly short, read. Check it out, if you haven’t.

    It’s troubling that a Christian could possibly have a ‘problem’ with this prayer, not only because of its prominence for millenia of Christian history, but also because it so plainly encapsulates the essence of spiritual life. It’s essentially *exactly* the prayer of the Publican (Luke 18:13-14), which Jesus lauds as justifying the Publican. If Jesus loves the prayer, why don’t you?


    • Thanks for the book rec, Nathan! I’ll check it out. Sounds like a great book!

      I think most Christians find problems with many things because theologies and church cultures are so enmeshed with their identity; including myself, as I am discovering. Our fear of traditions other than our own tend to overshadow our faith in God’s providence in our journey to go deeper beyond cursory understandings of Biblical truth. But I find it interesting that the Jesus Prayer is the perfect tool to get us humble enough for that deeper journey.

      Thanks for your insights!

  2. Amen, Doug. The world will continue to try to blind us from seeing
    that we are simply just sheep in need of a good shepherd.

  3. Thanks again Doug. I grew up in a holiness church, confused about why I still sinned. I have known and believed for many years now that I am still a functional sinner, and I am clean in his eyes. I recently read Anne of Green Gables and when she makes a mistake big or small she assures her adopted mom that she will learn and not do that mistake again. I like that. We can make some progress in becoming more Christlike.

    • I agree, Mary. It seems that many theologies try to describe Biblical truths in terms of absolute conclusions, rather than dynamic processes (which is hard to do without diluting the argument). But “life in faith” is totally dynamic and a process Jesus understood that (as did Anne). Thanks for your insight!

  4. Doug, The honesty of todays blog is so transparent and encouraging. Thank you! I also share your innate need to remind myself of where He found me. That I truly am only a sinner saved by His grace and mercy and nothing more. Thank you again, Doug

    • thanks, Karen! It’s humbling to know that we are sinners left to our own devices. It’s uplifting to know the love, grace and mercy of God for sinners like us. It’s the only we can be propelled in the paradoxical journey of “downward upwardness” to be more like our Jesus.

  5. I too use the Lord’s prayer to refocus. When I am too burdened to even form the words of my prayer, I can prayer His prayer and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” pretty well covers all my problems. God bless you for your blog. Deneane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s