‘Forgive me Lord, for I pray in paragraphs’

I think it is Peter Wimsey who somewhere apologises for the fact that he speaks in paragraphs; his thoughts are so ordered, he seems to suggest, his mind so clear, that whole chunks of connected logic fall from his mouth when he opens it; he realises that this might be irritating to those less blessed with intellectual clarity, and so he says sorry.

It struck me with force last week during a church leaders’ meeting that I pray in paragraphs. Not because my relationship with God is so ordered, but because I have become professional about praying, at least in public; I wish that were not so. One of our pastors introduced an issue that was on his heart, asked us to pray; it was something I cared about deeply in the life of our church, and I began; I managed a sentence that was heartfelt, and then instinct took over; I said all the right things fluently and elegantly; I prayed in paragraphs.

I was minuting the meeting; I recorded a time of prayer, and wrote beside it, ‘forgive me Lord, for I pray in paragraphs’.

I suppose it is a Free Church pastors’ disease, although I will not assume that any other pastor is infected: called on regularly to offer extempore prayer at no notice in a variety of situations, we become adept at expressing what we know that we and our people should feel, and doing so in well-constructed prayers. I am not even going to suggest that this is wrong; in many contexts (‘Would you say grace, pastor?’) it is, I suppose, exactly the right response; but where something actually matters, where what is needed is a heart poured out before God in naked honesty, to pray in paragraphs is a betrayal. No doubt more experienced, or more prayerful, or just better, pastors than I are alive to this, and are able to switch off autopilot and respond with authenticity. Perhaps this is my problem alone, but I at least have to confess that when, in public, I should be praying honestly, I default to praying in paragraphs.

I know what honest prayer feels and sounds like; I know it in my private prayers. The words are often enough broken; for me, honest prayer is bodily – kneeling, prostration, and outstretched arms are integral to any real expression of my heart. When my heart overflows, I generally default to praying in tongues, unable to find words to express the complexity of guilt and trust and faith and hope that courses through me, I turn to the Spirit within who can pray as I cannot, and groan…

…in public, though, even when the ‘public’ is a small group of fellow-leaders who I have journeyed with and trust, I so instinctively pray in paragraphs that I am presently unable to restrain the impulse. I wish it were not so; I wish I were able to be honest before God in public as I am in private; but at present I am unable to restrain myself…

…forgive me, Lord, for I pray in paragraphs.


  1. David Kerrigan
    Nov 2, 2014

    Steve, I sympathise. The ‘would you please pray at the drop of a hat’ request comes frequently, and I don’t resent it in the slightest. But I do recognise the orderliness with which we respond, the words can flow, and its all tied up with a bow. Yet inwardly, on occasions, there is a yearning that words cannot convey.

    Just in the last few days I have yearned for an answer to prayer and needed no words. It was if the thought formed in my mind and the only (unspoken) words that were needed were something like “there you are – you know all this – just help” – addressed to God.

    There are many dangers when words are the tools of your trade – praying in paragraphs is one, more often than not winning arguments, or covering over a weak case with well-crafted sentences are others. But they are also a gift, and you use that particular gift well.

    Pax Vobiscum – as those of us with posh words might say!

    • steve
      Nov 3, 2014

      Thanks, David.

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