prayers for the pilgrimage

Christians have long thought of the life of faith as a journey, a pilgrimage. “Walking with God” is one of the Bible’s most frequent metaphors for living in a relationship with him. This walk, the “ancient path” (Jeremiah 6:16), is difficult (Matthew 7:14) but blessed (Psalm 119:1). It is a walk in “newness of life,” opened to us by the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4).

This journey, like any other, includes a lot of ups and downs. At some of its stages, even putting one foot in front of the other (metaphorically speaking) feels like too much. Sometimes, the detours and byways look so tantalizingly easy and pleasant, and the road of carrying crosses (Luke 9:23) so steep and dark, that to make it through even one day without straying is a battle. Some days it takes everything we’ve got not to give up and turn back.

On those days, or during those seasons, the Word of God truly is the “lamp for our feet,” “the light for our path” that we so desperately need (Psalm 119:105). Seasoned travelers often know the scriptures that have brought them through life’s highs and lows in the past, the ones to which they have returned again and again for reassurance and guidance. These are the scriptures they have prayed so often that the phrases now spring up naturally in their prayers.

I’m at the beginning of my journey, but I know of a few prayers from the “guidebook” to which I repeatedly turn on those days when temptation, trouble, and doubt threaten so fiercely. Perhaps they can help you too.

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24

In this story from Mark’s Gospel, a father of a mute, convulsive, demon-possessed boy brings his son to Jesus seeking healing, saying, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus replies by saying, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes,” to which the father gives the memorable answer above. The footnote in my Bible says that some manuscripts add that he cried out “with tears,” in his desperation. Jesus responds by healing the man’s son in front a large crowd, making the point of his power in spite of weak faith exceedingly clear.

“I believe, help my unbelief” is my prayer too. Jesus’ promise about faith the size of a mustard seed is a promise I must claim (Luke 13:18-19, Luke 17:5-6). I am like this father, desperate, hard pressed for faith but turning to Jesus because I know no one and nothing can help me like he can.

[A Canaanite woman] came and knelt before [Jesus], saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:25-27

In this story, a Canaanite woman pushes through the cultural barriers of race and sex, ignores the ignorance of Jesus’ disciples, and challenges even the apparent reluctance of Jesus himself in her insistence that Jesus heal her daughter. She does not entitle herself to Jesus’ mercy, accepting her status as really being like that of a dog begging for scraps. Instead, she bravely, relentlessly asserts that Jesus’ grace is wide enough even for her. Jesus labels her assertion “great faith.”

When my sin or circumstances make my life look like that of a dog looking for scraps, “Lord, even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” is my prayer. I will not give up on the grace that has not given up on me. Like this woman, crying out after Jesus, and like Jacob, “wrestling with God,” even when God wounds me, I must simply cling to him and claim the promise of his blessing, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:25-28).

And [Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say… ‘Give us each day our daily bread…’” Luke 11:2-3

“Give us each day our daily bread” is the line at the center of the Lord’s Prayer. It is not a prayer for a lifetime of bread, or even for tomorrow’s bread, but simply for the bread needed today. It is a prayer for grace one day at a time. “Father, give me today’s grace” is my prayer each morning, and I mean it the most when I know what kind of difficulty to expect from the day.

These prayers from the Bible, along with being expressions of what we need, are promises to us from God.

  • “I believe, help my unbelief” is a promise that his power is greater than our doubt.
  • “Even the dogs eat the scraps from your table” is a promise that his mercy is bigger than our mess.
  • “Give us each day our daily bread” is a promise that his grace is enough to get us through each day, one day at a time.

Praying these prayers simply means claiming his promises as our own.

Jesus goes before us on this pilgrimage. He opened the gate, he paved the way, he carried the cross. He will bring us to the finish.

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:24