The Art of Prayer

If you can cry, “Mercy!” then you have prayed.

-Pastor Shelby Samuels
Concord Baptist Church, TX

We’re told that prayer is the bowing of all heads at once on Sunday morning. That it’s a list kept, where names of the unfortunate are written down and mentioned back to God daily until an answer comes. We’re told to pray without ceasing, as if the heart and mind could murmur, complain, petition, praise, or rejoice in incessantly restless fashion.

Yet God is a refuge and rest. His yoke is easy; His burden is light.

Sometimes, prayer is what people do on Sunday together. Sometimes it’s what we do for those around us. Sometimes it’s a constant restlessness.

And sometimes it’s not.

Long ago, I stumbled across an obscure hymn in the book that has never been sung in any church I’ve attended. It says this:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

What, then, of the artist? The neo-gnostic would make our imagination a sinful fleshly trait. The cultural separatist would regulate it to fit within a particular scope of religious expression. The hedonist would give it free rein to trample rampant through the weeds of sin.

But the scripture says this:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)

Nothing we do in this life can be perfect, but God is. And we, the Christian artists, are carried in the arms of Christ as much as the preachers, the mothers, the counselors, and the faithful nine-to-five workers of our generation.

Forgiven by Thomas Blackshear

Prayer is the response of the human heart to the divine. The artist, too, is a frail human–neither a shining god on a pedestal nor a gargoyle.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.

The classic evangelical advice for Christian artists is to read the Bible every day, and to pray before working or pray over the work.

I have yet to understand this artificial separation between the prayer and the work.

Not only that, there’s a horror that sometimes happens when formula is required in the actions of the soul: The words of God can be misappropriated to impose rigid requirements in Christian practice, and His truth becomes overwritten by the voices of those who do the imposing.

To listen to words attributed to God and hear instead the sound of a human will asserting its self-interest is repugnant. We feel this in ourselves when under conviction, and weary of ourselves. We feel it in others when led by Godly discernment, whether in the moment or in hindsight, and weary of the human state.

The heart that wants to remain true to its faith will not utter a sacred response like prayer in answer to such usurping. No matter how broken, a true heart decries the act of petitioning an idol.

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer, the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.

If you and I have been impassioned by pain, grief, or love, and sought the words to write it on the page, if you’ve seen the hand of God weaving through that struggle as I have, and responded to His presence with a deeper searching, we have prayed.

If we have sought to contrast light against darkness in depicting the human experience, whether with brushes or words or music, and so to understand the works of God, we have prayed.

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
His watchword at the gates of death;
He enters Heav’n with prayer.

To create art, I argue, is the evidence of heaven and the fingerprint of divine purpose. So much of art has no survival purpose–it’s for beauty and for wisdom.

We all know a stupid fool or two who seems to need neither one in order to get from cradle to grave. But most of us, whether with the mind and gestures of a child arranging food on a plate, or a hands-on worker experimenting with how things are built, or a painter learning the magic of how light falls on water–most of us, if not all in some way, are seekers. We reach out before we know what we’re reaching for.

But once we do know–when the presence of God manifests itself in life–the reaching has eternal purpose and meaning.

Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice
And cry, “Behold, he prays!”

The saints in prayer appear as one
In word, in deed, and mind,
While with the Father and the Son
Sweet fellowship they find.

Life is art. Art is prayer. It doesn’t matter what forms religion assumes, though form is useful in its rightful place–the human heart was designed to glorify God in the greatest variety possible. And in that variety, we have unity and fellowship in Him.

If you and I have groaned or shed tears or felt the overflowing joy of a thing coming together as a thing should, if our souls have experienced an ineffable harmonic through the act of creation, we have prayed. If we have been transformed and renewed by the work, we have worshipped.

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Rom. 8:26)

If we have experienced an inexplicable wellspring where the lines almost seem to draw themselves, where the words flow forth from an unknown source, where the music sings itself to life, we have prayed.

No prayer is made by man alone
The Holy Spirit pleads,
And Jesus, on th’eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.

It’s the intersection of the heart’s passion, of faith whether uttered or unexpressed, and of the Christian drawing a breath of his native air. We are the stewards and the servants of a hidden fire. When we, the artists, do not fit the formulas and rituals of common religious practice, we are not dead or sinning–and we are not without resource and refuge.

In the song, in the brushstroke, in the words upon the page, we falter and stumble. We seek to make sense of what we’ve witnessed and how God is moving through this broken world. We ask Him why. We repeat His gestures as a child learns by imitating a parent. We search our own souls, knowing that He remembers us.

And when we find no comfort in the bowing of heads on Sunday or the lists that others faithfully make, or the daily devotional practices of the non-artist, our devotional is to create.

And angels in their songs rejoice, and cry: “Behold! He prays!”



The hymn referenced is Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire, by James Montgomery, written 1818.


  1. Simply beautiful. As an aside, I *have* sung this hymn, using the tune from another old hymn, ‘Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,’ attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux

    1. Thanks, Hank.

      Now that would be a beautiful blend, to put those two together. The tune in our hymnal is one I don’t recognize from elsewhere.

  2. And for some of us walking wounded, art is the only prayer we have. I object greatly to being told it is inferior or lacking somehow. The connection is realer than any old heads-bowed thing, and yet I still fight with inferiority and probably underestimate my faith at every turn. There are many definitions of Christian by which I am not one. Is it any wonder I question my standing?
    Here’s to the weird, the different – here’s to us.

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