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.