As I begged God to teach me to pray I poured through the scripture, read the Church fathers, and dabbled around with all the current prayer gurus. Eventually the Holy Scripture, the Philokalia, and early Russian Orthodoxy, were to become my teachers and mentors for prayer. I felt certain at the time that if I could not find a way to transform my inadequacies and weakness in praying to God that I would have failed at the most significant relationship I would ever have. It was not that I wanted so much to be a good at praying, as it was that I wanted good prayer. I wanted to pray in ways that were not just of this world, but without losing touch with reality and practical daily application. At the time of this spiritual seeking my life was in a degree of personal turmoil so it was easy for me to want to find something to help distract me or lift me from my uncomfortable and humbling circumstances. But in my heart I was not wanting to run or hide, I only wanted to survive the wave of crisis I was in, and in the process know that my cries for help to God the Father were genuine and real, and not just a band-aid for my hurts and suffering. I was not hung up on having just the “right feeling” in prayer so much as I was determined in knowing the truth about prayer. My personal contact book (people I knew) at the time was a “who’s who” of the Christian world, but still I did not know if one of these contacts had any real practical and historical perspective on prayer? I felt ashamed because as a pastor (17 years at the time) I too had no significant information or perspective on prayer. So I began to search; initially I searched because of my pain, and then eventually I was searching because of the hunger and desire that was rapidly growing within me. This all took on a greater purpose and meaning as it became then the central issue of my journey and the deep longing of my soul for a spiritual knowledge and prayerful practice that would navigate my life forever. I wanted to pray from the “inside out” and not the “outside in.”
It was not that I wanted so much to be a good at praying, as it was that I wanted good prayer.
But in my heart I was not wanting to run or hide, I only wanted to survive the wave of crisis I was in, and in the process know that my cries for help to God the Father were genuine and real, and not just a band-aid for my hurts and suffering.
About that time I stumbled on the Russian classic, “The Way of the Pilgrim.” After reading this book I realized my life would never be the same, as the Spirit led me to truths of God’s word that had only been for me (until then) just that – words. The words now came to life. I wept when I read words like, “true prayer worships in the spirit, not in the flesh.” I wept because I was coming to grips with how weak my flesh was and just how much I had relied on it in my worship. I sat quiet for hours when I read about “the inner secret man of the heart.” I pondered this phrase over and over, “Who was this secret man? But yet, I also felt that I knew precisely who he was. I had always known that “the kingdom of God was within me” but did not realize how little time I spent in that reality. The apostle Paul writes in scripture that God promised to us “the intercession of the Holy Spirit, with groaning that cannot be uttered.” But now I could literally hear God saying, “Steve, give me your heart and I will give you My Spirit.”
Then I discovered that I could never have peace of mind, unless God had my mind and the ceaseless prayer of Jesus filled my heart.
My prayer times had always been so easily distracted, having difficulty clearing my mind of random or evil thoughts. But I felt I had been given the keys to a locked door when I read that the early Church fathers believed the soul could be freed from sinful thoughts by guarding the mind (Isaiah 26:3), and that cleansing one’s heart was done only by Christ through something they called “interior prayer” – (Christ praying in us). That was what I was seeking – to somehow pray from the inside, somewhere deep in my spirit and soul communicating with God. As I reached for truth regarding personal prayer I found out something that would change my course. I found that my peace of mind and discipline of thoughts were critical to what I was reaching for. Then I discovered that I could never have peace of mind, unless God had my mind and the ceaseless prayer of Jesus filled my heart. I was speechless, and for maybe the first time in my life Steve Isaac finally went silent… and I listened undistracted as I read; “The nature of things – is judged by the inward disposition of the soul, that is, a man gets his ideas about his neighbors from what he himself is. He who has attained to true prayer and love has no sense of the differences between things: he does not distinguish the righteous man from the sinner, but loves them all equally and judges no man, as God causes the sun to shine and His rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” After reading that, I looked at my life and knew why I could not pray the way Christ had taught me to pray. Simply because I did not love the way Christ had taught me to love. I found that my greatest obstacle in achieving true and effective prayer was myself. As I started to “get over me” I reached the point where (in some small ways) I actually began thinking in some small ways the way Jesus would want me to think. And in even smaller ways actually loving the way Jesus loved. It was then that I started to experience a breakthrough. I will remember forever when I read the words, “Ceaseless prayer is to call upon the name of God always, whether a man is conversing, sitting down, walking, making something, or eating. Whatever he may be doing, in all places and at all times, he ought to call upon God’s name.”
I asked myself how is that possible? Well, then came the prayer of Jesus, or as history calls it “The Jesus Prayer.” This is what happened to me. I learned in my research that the ancient Christians often prayed a common prayer during the extreme persecutions of the first century. They would pray a simple prayer as they were about to be beaten or put to death as a result of their confession of faith in God, and giving witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As they quietly stood before crowds, magistrates, and political authorities they prayed… “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; Have mercy on me a sinner.” They used the prayer to calm their fear, and silence their soul. They prayed the prayer to help overcome their weakness of faith in extreme circumstances, and to plead the mercy of Christ in their greatest hour of temptation.
It was a difficult and strange process at first, but I was determined and certain that this was going to be something that was for me.
Because this prayer inspired courage and resolve among thousands of believers it was passed on from generation to generation. It was passed on to others who would also pray the prayer very simply as a way (they believed) to pray continuously, and to train their spirit to cry out to God from the deepest recesses of their soul. They also prayed this prayer when they could not or should not pray out loud. For me personally, I tried as others, to pray the prayer repeatedly with meaning and intent on each word. It was a difficult and strange process at first, but I was determined and certain that this was going to be something that was for me. I also discovered that I had the hunger and desire to learn and to pursue spontaneous and Spirit-led prayer as I never had before. Along the way I heard and listened to some well-intended concerns from a few of my pastoral peers. But after carefully hearing their concerns and thoughts I certainly could not find any solid biblical instruction against it, so I went on. This prayer today (years later) is not only continually on my lips and on my mind, but more importantly it is in my soul and is certainly prayed from my spirit. The prayer continues on in me when I am doing other tasks, which obviously deserve and require both my time and attention, I can hear it in there rumbling around in my mind and in my heart crying out – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; Have mercy on me a sinner.” It is my prayer without ceasing…
Scriptures to read
2 Chronicles 6:18-21
Jesus Prayer Update:
Last month (February 2015), The Muslim terrorist group known as ISIS, captured close to three hundred Assyrian Christians and another thirty Egyptian Coptic Christians. On February 18th (Ash Wednesday) the terror group beheaded twenty-one of the Coptic Christians and posted the gruesome and inhumane execution on the internet. Technical engineers reported from the audio file that the Christians could be heard singing hymns, and praying prayers. One particular prayer was translated and identified in part as saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”…