Problematic Words in Prayer: “All My Words are ‘Just’”
The theme for the midweek Lent services this year at the church I attend was titled “Teach Us to Pray.” It was a series focusing on the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. It has the goal to guide members to the practice of prayer. I have participated in these services and even preached for the series, and this has led me to reflect upon not only my own practice of prayer as a Christian, but also my leadership of public prayer as a pastor. I have become more impressed with the significance of the language of prayer, and this has led me to question the use of certain words commonly found in prayers offered by pastors (and, I might add, seminarians preparing to become pastors).
My concern is with the language of some prayers offered by pastors, particularly in the public worship service. Some of this appears in written prayers, but most frequently it occurs in extemporaneous prayers. First, let it be clear that I am not opposed to ex corde prayers being spoken in the context of the divine service or other contexts. Indeed, as one who leads worship regularly my usual practice is to offer prayers extemporaneously. Although I find value in leading prayer from a pre-written script, I do not think this is essential to leadership of public worship, nor should a pastor be slavish to pre-formulated prayers. Indeed, there are many contexts in which a pastor is called upon to offer prayer when a pre-written prayer is not available or would be less appropriate (i.e., “Pastor, will you pray for my mother who is ill?”). So extemporaneous prayer is oftentimes salutary and necessary.
My concern is not that extemporaneous prayers are spoken; my concern is with what is spoken in those prayers. It is about the content of the prayers. More specifically, it is about the words which are chosen by the pastor, words which may not communicate good theology. The ancient saying is true, lex orandi, lex credenda: “As one prays so he believes.” Thus the public prayers offered by the pastor testify to matters of faith and doctrine. The words he chooses express theology, for better or for worse.
In this post and in two subsequent ones I identify certain words or “stock phrases” which I have heard spoken by pastors in public prayer which, in my opinion, have the potential to miscommunicate or to convey a less than sound theology. The first of these is the adverb “just.”
This word used as an adjective in prayer—“Your ways, O Lord, are just and right”—is typically not problematic. The potential for a problem arises when it is used as an adverb—“Lord, we just come to you seeking your mercy. We just ask you to…” In this case the word “just” is used to minimize one’s request, as in “I don’t want to bother you, but I just want you to do this small favor.”
Proverbs 8:8 states: “All the words of my mouth are just” (NIV). In this passage the intended function of the word “just” is that of an adjective, not an adverb, meaning that one’s speech is righteous. Yet many prayers spoken today sound more like this proverb intends us to use the word adverbially: “All the words of my mouth are just”—as in “O God, I just pray that…I just ask that…we just offer our praise…just…just…just…”
I did a search of people’s prayers recorded in the Bible and I couldn’t find a single example of the word “just” used in this manner. The closest that comes to this is the centurion’s request in Matthew 8:8: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” In this case the adverb only is used similarly to just, in order to narrow the act which is requested of Jesus. But notice that in this case the adverb modifies Jesus’ action (“say the word”), whereas typically in common prayer parlance today it modifies the petitioner’s action (“I just ask that”).
I suspect that this adverb is frequently used in prayer in order to express humility before the Lord. Of course, a spirit of humbleness is appropriate as sinful creatures approach the holy Creator. Yet there are better ways of expressing humility before God, such as confessing one’s sins, acknowledging one’s role as a servant, and affirming God’s status as the sovereign one. The prayers of Abraham (Gen. 18:22-33), Solomon (1 Kings 3:6-9), and Daniel (Dan. 9:3-19) exemplify this.
The most significant problem with the adverbial use of “just” in many petitions is that it does not reflect the attitude with which God invites us to pray. God directs us to pray with boldness and confidence. A sampling of scriptural passages makes this clear: “…in Christ Jesus our Lord…we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (Eph. 3:12), “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16), “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22), “And this is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 Jn 5:14).
Jesus himself encouraged boldness in prayer based on the Christian’s status as God’s child (Luke 11:1-13, 18:1-8). Is it any wonder that Martin Luther, in his explanation of the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, writes: “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are his true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask him as dear children ask their dear father.” The repeated use of the adverb “just” in one’s petitions to the Lord mitigates against his invitation that we pray boldly and with confidence.
So I recommend that pastors remove the word just from their prayers when it is used this way. Instead of praying, “We just ask You,” say “We ask You.” Rather than speaking, “I just offer this request,” state “I request.” This will better communicate the boldness and confidence with which we are to approach our Heavenly Father. Moreover, this will model more faithfully to the worshippers we are leading in prayer how they may speak to God “as dear children to their dear Father.”