Question: "What is the Jesus Prayer?"
Answer: The Jesus Prayer is a short mental prayer or chant used repetitively to help one “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to focus one’s thoughts on Jesus, to tap into divine power, or (in Hesychasm) to attain union with God. The Jesus Prayer is particularly popular in Eastern Orthodoxy, although Roman Catholics use it, too.
Generally, the Jesus Prayer follows, with some variation, the prayer of the publican in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:13). The Jesus Prayer in Greek is Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν, which translates to “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
As a quick and concise prayer that cries out to the Lord for grace, there is nothing wrong with the Jesus Prayer. The prayer can be a convenient way to remind ourselves that we need God’s help throughout the day. The prayer concludes with an acknowledgement that we are sinners. We don’t deserve mercy, but we ask Jesus to provide it for us. All of this is biblical.
However, as with any liturgical prayer, the Jesus Prayer can easily become a mantra, a vain repetition (see Matthew 6:7), or a meaningless set of words. Orthodox writers speak of praying the Jesus Prayer as an “inner asceticism” and a “hidden martyrdom,” emphasizing the mystical aspect of repetitive prayer. In Hesychasm (a mystical movement within Eastern Orthodoxy), the Jesus Prayer is used to attain a complete emptying of the mind—an unbiblical practice. Praying the Jesus Prayer is often accompanied by the use of prayer ropes (komboskini in Greek and chotki in Russian) or prayer beads in a way similar to praying the Rosary, adding ritual and tradition to what should be a spiritual practice.
Another danger of the repetitive use of the Jesus Prayer is that the practitioner can become confused as to the source of divine power. Is the power in the words being spoken over and over? Is this chant a true prayer, or is it becoming a magical incantation? Scripture is clear that the Lord of glory is the source of power; our prayers only have power as they are prayed in the will of God.
Scripture’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) is not a requirement to murmur the same words over and over all day long. Rather, to pray without ceasing is to have an attitude of God-consciousness that we carry with us all the time, allowing us to take our burdens directly to the Lord the instant we feel them. We have been called to, “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). We have not been called to monk-like asceticism or mantra-making. Even though the Jesus Prayer contains biblical truth, no amount of chanting will draw one closer to God.