One Word

Have you ever felt at a loss for words when you pray? Then stop at one—just one word or one phrase.

The pious Pharisee had much to say, but (according to Jesus) ended up just “praying to himself.” By contrast, a tax-collector simply cried out “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” And God counted this latter man as righteous. (Luke 18:9-17)

Words can, at times, spiritually suffocate us. They can grow more and more empty. And in times of grief, loss, depression, or fear they can utterly fail us.

Yet, we sometimes think that the more we say (or the longer we say it) the more we’ll attract the Lord’s attention. Wear Him down. Wear Him out. Talk till He cries “uncle.” An hour of relentless bombardment in prayer will surely move the heart of God in profound ways. And make those prayers loud and dramatic. He’ll like that, for sure. Irresistible.

Perhaps not.

Perhaps we forget how we feel when others verbally assail us.

John ClimacusThe Egyptian Desert Father, John Climacus, wrote in the 7th century: “Wordiness in prayer often subjects the mind to fantasy and dissipation; single words of their very nature tend to concentrate the mind. When you find satisfaction or compunction in a certain word of your prayer, stop at that point.”

It’s sound advice.

“Lord, help me.” “Holy Spirit, change me.” “Loving Father, use me.”

Has our pursuit of quantity (“Gotta get in 30 minutes with God before breakfast”) somehow diminished our true capacity to connect with God? When our prayers bounce back from the ceiling, perhaps less would be more. Less words + more attentiveness = a richer encounter. The Quakers, and many others, have known this for a long time.

Don’t quit praying. But do feel free—at least from time to time—to simplify, shorten, and streamline what you have to say. He hears perfectly well. He understands us completely. He misses nothing.

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9 Responses to One Word

  1. Tom Leatherby says:


    • Bill Conway says:

      Hi David,

      Wonderful words of encouragement. May God continue to richly bless you with insights into the heart of the Father and His living Word to all that love Him.


      Bill Conway, Perth – Western Australia

  2. Phil McKinley says:

    That reminds of a funny story. Upon joining a monastery, the anxious candidate was told by the head monk, “You are only allowed three words per year. The abundance of your time must be spent with God.” After the first year, the candidate was allowed to speak and said, “Bed, too hard”. After the second year, the candidate was again allowed to speak and said, “Food, too cold.” Upon his third year opportunity, he said, “Light, too dim”, to which the head monk replied, “You are hearby banned from the monastery. In three years, all you’ve done is complain.” Not sure there is an application, just funny.

  3. Richard Cameron says:

    David, thanks so much for this teaching. I’m a pastor, in Glasgow, Scotland and I’ve been finding it hard to pray recently; I can’t find the right words. But I’m just about to go and pray right now, thanks to you. ‘Help me Lord’ will be my prayer.

    • David Timms says:

      What a great prayer, Richard. It’s worth binding on the forearm and returning to 50 times a day. May the Father’s grace sustain you in a special way right now. – David

  4. Velma Hall says:

    Very helpful to me, and I am sure to many others.

  5. Helen says:

    As always great encouragement Thank you

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