“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’.”
I recently had the delightful opportunity to lead a Fuller Seminary Southwest class in a two-week exploration of people whose lives had greatly influenced the spiritual life of the universal church. In the class, Spiritual Traditions and Practices, we looked at the writings of people such as Augustine, Benedict of Nursia, Ignatius of Loyola, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
One of the texts we examined was Martin Luther’s A Simple Way to Pray. It is a small book that has had big influence for the past 500 years. Many Christian leaders rank A Simple Way to Pray as one of their favorites, and among the most helpful.
This simple primer on prayer goes back to the spring of 1535 as Luther sat in his barber’s chair in Wittenberg, Germany. His barber and friend, Peter Beskendorf, had discerned a connection between Luther’s greatness and his devotion to prayer. Thus he asked Luther if he could teach him how to pray.
Luther responded promptly to Peter’s plea for help by turning out a paper on prayer and presenting it to the barber. Luther published the paper as a short book that year, and the book went through four editions in just the first year. People were eager then, as many people are now, to learn more about prayer. I am one of many who have found Luther’s A Simple Way to Pray very helpful.
In this little treatise on prayer Luther does something quite wonderful by rooting prayer in God’s Word. He demonstrates how he had learned to blend his own spontaneous prayers with God’s written Word. Luther’s simple way begins with comparing prayer to “a garland of four twisted strands” presented to God. Each of those four strands comes from a question we ask of a line from the Bible:
- What INSTRUCTION is there for me?
- What cause for THANKSGIVING is there?
- What CONFESSION is evoked?
- What PRAYER petition is appropriate?
Our answers to these four questions put to the Biblical text become the four strands we weave into prayer that we present to God:
INSTRUCTION, THANKSGIVING, CONFESSION, PRAYER.
Luther demonstrates with various Biblical texts how this works for him. For instance, Luther illustrates weaving four strands for prayer from just the first line of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Consider Luther’s example in his own words:
THE FIRST STRAND – INSTRUCTION
Here I earnestly consider that God expects and teaches me to trust him sincerely in all things and that it is his most earnest purpose to be my God. I must think of him in this way at the risk of losing eternal salvation. My heart must not build upon anything else or trust in any other thing, be it wealth, prestige, wisdom, might, piety, or anything else.
THE SECOND STRAND – THANKSGIVING
Second, I give thanks for his infinite compassion by which he has come to me in such a fatherly way and, unasked, unbidden, and unmerited, has offered to be my God, to care for me, and to be my comfort, guardian, help, and strength in every time of need. We poor mortals have sought so many gods and would have to seek them still if he did not enable us to hear him openly tell us in our own language that he intends to be our God. How could we ever-in all eternity-thank him enough!
THE THIRD STRAND – CONFESSION
Third, I confess and acknowledge my great sin and ingratitude for having so shamefully despised such sublime teachings and such a precious gift throughout my whole life, and for having fear- fully provoked his wrath by countless acts of idolatry. I repent of these and ask for his grace.
THE FOURTH STRAND – PRAYER
Fourth, I pray and say: ‘O my God and Lord, help me by thy grace to learn and understand thy commandments more fully every day and to live by them in sincere confidence. Preserve my heart so that I shall never again become forgetful and ungrateful, that I may never seek after other gods or other consolation on earth or in any creature, but cling truly and solely to thee, my only God. Amen, dear Lord God and Father. Amen’.
Luther reminds Peter the barber that just like “a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair,” so he will need to keep his thoughts and attention on God’s Word as he prays. Luther then encourages Peter to “let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night”.
I hope that you give a try to Luther’s simple way to pray in your own words. It has made the difference in a lot of lives. See if it makes a difference in yours!
Grace and peace,
photo by David Hoffman