Praying the Shema as a Christian

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Growing up, we did not recite prayers by memory. Though my Catholic friends regularly used well-loved and oft-repeated prayers, they were a foreign concept to me. I believed that prayers must always rise spontaneously from the heart, otherwise I risked becoming trite in my devotion to God.

I'll be honest here, that stance seems a little silly now. I have a whole library of hymns and devotional songs stored in my memory. I have no problem singing the same song in worship over and over. Though I am not very good at it, I value the ability to memorize and recite scriptures. Why can I repeat songs or memory verses, but not prayers?

Why memorize prayers?

I've been giving a lot of thought to prayer over the past year, and one of my recent goals has been to pray when I first wake up. It is incredibly difficult for me to form a coherent prayer with a groggy mind (I am not a morning person!) and it wasn't long until I started reciting the Lord's Prayer a few times through instead, focusing on different aspects that resonated with me. I memorized that prayer as a child in school. I'm sure you know it in one of its many forms and translations, but here it is the NASB rendition:

The Lord's Prayer

“Our Father who is in heaven,

Hallowed by your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

As we have also forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.”

Reciting prayers was part of the culture of Jesus

Jesus gave this prayer to his disciples because they asked him to teach them how to pray. Prayer was a regular part of Jewish life, including memorized prayers. In my novel, Dividing Sword, I often mention the characters praying the Shema. “Shema or Sh'ma” means “hear” in Hebrew, and the title is taken from the first line of the prayer, “Hear O Israel.”

This prayer was a confession of God's kingship. It was recited morning and evening and when a person was close to death. It was (and still is) included in services at the synagogue. It is almost certain that Jesus recited this prayer thousands of times in his life.

I didn't include the entire Shema in my novel, but I want to share it here with you now, in the NASB translation.

The Shema

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.

You shall teach them diligently to your sons and talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.

You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.

You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.