I confess, I have a private prayer language

One of the controversies bubbling up in the Southern Baptist Convention has to do with “private prayer language.” Steve McCoy recently revealed that NAMB is now asking about this in their applications for scholarships:

“Do you speak in an unknown tongue (glosolalia) or have a private prayer language?”

Well, I have a confession to make. I have a private prayer language. I didn’t seek it. It didn’t come in any kind of ecstatic jolt. I have had it for as long as I can remember. My private prayer language is the language I use when, well, praying in private.

Though all prayer ought to be authentic, there are appropriate differences that should characterize the way we pray in different settings. Our public prayer should employ different language than that offered in more intimate groups, and prayers offered in private should be different from both of these. Spurgeon recognized the difference between public and private prayer and devoted separate chapters to each in his Lectures to My Students.

When leading in public or corporate prayer one should remember that he is praying in behalf of those gathered. Corporate praise, corporate confession and petitions that are appropriate for the body in general should punctuate such praying. When leading a church in pastoral prayer, the minister, Spurgeon suggests, should consider the general needs and concerns that mark the congregation. “He should bring the joys and sorrows of his people alike before the throne of grace, and ask that the divine benediction may rest upon his flock…and that the forgiveness of God may be extended to their shortcomings and innumerable sins.” Such prayers must seek to carry to the throne of grace all of those who are gathered for worship. Anything that would hinder spiritually minded people from following should be avoided.

In small groups, prayers can be more appropriately intimate and less formal than in larger gatherings. More personal needs can be specifically brought before the Lord and, given the nature of the relationships of those present, sins can be more specifically confessed and lamented. When families or spouses pray together, those issues that uniquely concern them are proper subjects of prayer. It is appropriate for four friends to pray together specifically about personal struggles and decisions in ways that would be inappropriate in a larger gathering.

When praying privately prayer can be completely intimate because it is completely private. This does not mean that it can be “cheeky” or flippant. God is still in heaven and we are still frail creatures of dust. But as children coming alone to a dearly loved and infinitely loving father, we may go to our God without regard of what others may think of our words or expressions. Our Lord prayed privately with words that were often not recorded and only partially recorded in Gethsemane. So it is with our own private prayers. They are characterized by expressions and language that is intimate and private. This is what D. M. M’Intyre means by the title of his book, The Hidden Life of Prayer.

Every Christian must pray this way, behind closed doors, if you will. Our Lord specifically instructs us to engage in private prayer. “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6). That is what I mean when I say that I have a “private prayer language.” My prayers “behind the door” are intimate, personal and transparent. I confess specific sinful attitudes and thoughts that plague my heart. I say things that would be completely inappropriate for me to say in corporate or even small group prayer. Sometimes, I don’t even know what to say and find myself wordless in the presence of God as I pour my heart out to Him. At such moments I take great comfort in knowing that “the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).

Now, for the record, my “private prayer language” is not any kind of ecstatic utterance. But it most definitely is private and intimate. It is not nearly as warm, consistent or vibrant as I want it to be and hope that it may yet become, but it is real. I am not a proponent of praying in a language that is unknown–which is typically what is meant by “private prayer language.” But I would sooner rejoice that a brother is praying in private than to castigate him for doing so in a way that is unintelligible. Private, personal prayer is one of the chief means whereby our hearts are cultivated for godliness.

In this sense, every Christian should have a private prayer language. In fact, in my opinion anyone who doesn’t should be disqualified from serving in any capacity in the SBC. Now there’s a policy that surely every Southern Baptist can support!

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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