Formations 01.05.2014: Public & Private Prayer

The Grief of Hannah, Cologne Bible, c. 1475, from A Brief History of Wood-engraving from its Invention by Joseph Cundall (1895)

The Grief of Hannah, Cologne Bible, c. 1475, from A Brief History of Wood-engraving from its Invention by Joseph Cundall (1895)

When I was a pastor, I was called upon to pray at many kinds of public gatherings, from Sunday school class parties to softball games to practically anything else. Have you ever prayed at the dedication of a new dry cleaning business? I have!

Part of me remains deeply touched that people would trust me to give voice to their prayers in such settings. Caring for people pastorally involves being there for them and with them in good times and bad. It certainly involves readiness to offer a prayer on their behalf even at something as seemingly trivial as a class party.

But those kinds of “public” prayers can only go so far. I can string a few words together for just about any occasion. I am, after all, a trained professional! But, as Eli demonstrates in this week’s lesson, sometimes the last thing you need is a professional religious person second-guessing your own heartfelt (if unscripted) prayers.

Perhaps what we do need, at least sometimes, is somebody like Flannery O’Connor to remind us that prayer doesn’t always have to be tidy, pleasant, or respectable. In the writer’s newly discovered prayer journal, now published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, we see the deep, often painfully honest prayers of someone who surely never intended for her prayers to be published for the world.

Those familiar with O’Connor’s novels will not be surprised to learn that her prayers are often personal, authentic, and raw. Her prayers are not “inspirational” in the way that word is often used among American Christians. They are not about joy or victory or prayer changing things—and that may be precisely why we need them. Sadly, sometimes Christians forget that faith is often a struggle. In reviewing Prayer Journal, Russell D. Moore observes, Some of our worship services are so clean and antiseptic, led by grinning preachers and praise bands, talking about how happy Jesus makes us, that we forget that the Spirit prompts us to “groan” at our sin and the suffering all around us (Romans 8:22-23).”

When we pour our hearts out to the Lord, the results may not always be “edifying” to others. The honesty and anguish of our prayers may shock or dismay others who do not understand what we are going through. Even so, examples of such authentic praying, even if it is raw and “unedited,” may in fact inspire us to approach God boldly.


• How is private prayer different from public prayer such as a pastor might pray in Sunday worship? What are the benefits of both kinds of prayer?
• What obstacles keep us from praying to God with complete honesty?
• How should we respond when others trust us with their most intimate prayers?


Russell D. Moore, “Why Christians Need Flannery O’Connor,”, 15 December 2013 .

Flannery O’Connor, Prayer Journal, ed. W. A. Sessions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

Marilynne Robinson, “Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Prayer Journal,’” The New York Times, Nov 15, 2013 .

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Judson Edwards says

    Thanks for your thoughts on prayer, Darrell. They were both provocative and well-written. I look forward to reading more from you. And congratulations on the “new look” websites. They are first class.