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Prayer and Theological Imagination

By Calvin Smith

March 18, 2020

Praying well does not guarantee preaching well. Joe might be a prayer warrior, but this does not mean that Joe should have (or that he even wants) the microphone. The opposite is true too. A good preacher is not necessarily a good pray-er. There are probably really smart godless pagans in every town who could stand up and deliver a more powerful, better written (if less sincere) sermon than most of us who preach week in and week out.

Praying and preaching must be interconnected somehow, but we have to start by acknowledging that good prayer is not a sufficient or necessary condition for good preaching. And good preaching is not a fool-proof indicator of good praying. That much is obvious.

This means, by the way, that we should probably abandon the hope of praying our way into being better preachers. God has given us many tried and true methods of improving our thinking and writing and speaking (e.g. read more, take a course, ask for feedback, ask advice from someone who does it better, etc.), it borders on tempting God to ask Him to do the work for us. Praying, and even praying really well, will not activate some kind of spiritual dispensary that will pour wit and style and good exegesis into our heads.

Still, our prayers and our preaching must be interconnected somehow. But how?

There is an old Latin phrase (most Latin phrases are) that runs Lex orandi, lex credendi. Now, not all Latin phrases are venerable and wise (e.g. Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari?), but Lex orandi, lex credendi has proven itself useful and true over the 1500 years or so it’s been used in the church. It roughly means: the law of prayer is the law of belief. To put it another way: what and how you pray shapes what you believe. Our prayers shape our theological imagination.

Of course, the reverse is true also – what we believe in part determines how and what we pray. But the church has long recognized that prayer is primary in theological formation. A child who learns from an early age to thank God that he is “not like those sinners” – will likely be a pompous pharisee, even if he hears better theology elsewhere. A child whose diet of prayers consists only of how much God loves me, will likely have an unconsciously narcissistic theology, even if she knows that self-centeredness is wrong. Our prayers, in deep and profound ways, shape what we think about God. Lex orandi, lex credendi.


As preachers, then, our prayers must not become excuses for laziness in preparation (“God, just tell me what I should say”), but we should be learning to pray in ways that expand our theological imaginations – thus inevitably deepening and widening our ability to articulate the nature of our God.

An example: I, like most parents, pray for my children each day. My “go-to” prayer might be something like this: “Dear God, please help my child to have a good day. Keep him safe and help him to find good friends at school. And help him to get over the cough that’s been bothering him. Amen.”

Is there anything wrong with this prayer? No. It is sincere, and I am genuinely concerned about the things I’m praying for. But at the same time, I am training myself, through long practice, that God is around to help everyone generally have

a good time.

Consider, on the other hand, this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer: “Almighty God, heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children: Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”

I genuinely mean this prayer too (and I can “color it in” with specific needs), but it also daily stretches my imagination of who God is, what He is concerned about, and what my role is in relation to Him and my family.

We all tend to have our own favorite three metaphors for God that we lean on. These are mental grooves that we will naturally find our prayers running in – grooves created over a lifetime of praying and singing. These are not bad, but these grooves show up in our preaching too. Our theological imagination has been carved out by our prayers, and our sermons flow from that imagination. To expand our preaching, we need more robust prayers.

If this rings true for you, here are three very unoriginal suggestions to stretch your prayer life (and that of your congregation.)

  1. Pray the Psalms

Jesus, Mary, Paul, Peter – their theological imaginations were formed by praying the Psalms. This is why the New Testament is a veritable forest of Psalms references. The prayers they prayed and sang from infancy seeped into their theology and songs and teachings and letters. There are all sort of schemas for praying through the Psalms – one-a-day (carve out a good hour for the 119th day), praying through the Psalter over two months, over one month. The monks pray all 150 every week. However you pray through the Psalms you will undoubtedly be struck with how strange some of these prayers are (e.g. curses on enemies), and how very familiar and contemporary some of these very ancient prayers are. But over years, these prayers will shape your assumptions, your longings, your awareness of God. And your preaching.

  1. Pray prayers that other people wrote

This is confusing for many people. “If someone else wrote it, how can I pray it genuinely?” The truth is that very few of us are truly able to express our own longings, praise, or needs. We simply aren’t articulate enough – especially in the early morning while drinking coffee. All of us have had the experience of reading or hearing something that someone else has written and saying: “That’s just how I feel! I just didn’t know how to say it.” We are not the first ones to pray – let us lean on our brothers and sisters, and learn their prayers, and join their prayers, and thus learn to pray what we couldn’t have prayed on our own.

  1. Pray prayers from other cultures and traditions

I do not write this from much experience, but from conviction. If prayer shapes belief, and all my prayers come funneled through a Western, Evangelical conduit, then my beliefs – the foundation of my preaching – is coming from a narrow slice of the whole church’s interaction with God. My prayer life, my preaching, and my congregation will be the poorer for it.

Good prayers do not guarantee good preaching. But good prayers form within us an expansive and rich theological imagination, which then nourishes our preaching.

A good place to end, perhaps, is with a quote from T.S. Eliot, which aptly describes the task of both the pray-er and the preacher, and the daily need to make a “raid on the inarticulate.” We need all the help we can get.

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure…

…And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling

– T.S. Eliot, East Coker

About the Author

Calvin Smith is the pastor of the Belfast Free Methodist Church, and a graduate of Northeastern Seminary. He and his wife Rebekah have been serving the Free Methodist Church in Western New York for 10 years in various roles and churches. When he’s not at the church, Calvin is probably reading with his sons, Silas and Roland, cooking with Rebekah, or outside trying to make something grow.