Simple Praying for Complex Times

As we see the inward, moral deterioration of the western world with waves of immigrants from other lands, many of whom are hostile to Christianity, coming to us, knowing how to pray directly and effectively can be difficult. Here’s a little help to that end from a book by Martin Luther.

Authored in 1535, A Simple Way to Pray was written to Luther’s barber, a man named Peter Beskendorf.  This man, known as “Master Peter,” had been Luther’s barber for years and was his friend.  Master Peter recognized the link between Luther’s prayer life and his obvious greatness, so he asked the Reformer to teach him how to pray. One can imagine Luther sitting there in a barber’s chair, his face all lathered up and a razor blade whisking along his neck, and this barber asking him questions about prayer.  Luther probably hesitated talking too much, not wanting to distract Peter in his work for obvious reasons!  So Luther wrote this book, which begins:

Dear Master Peter:  I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray.  May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen.”

The Lord used Luther to help move the church away from the superstitious and mystical views of prayer that were prevalent at that time to a powerful, biblical model of praying. We can use this model in the same way to help us to become more purposeful in prayer.  Luther’s approach encourages refocusing our prayers from purely personal concerns and mundane matters to the work of the church and the ministry of Christ.  To use his own words, this model or way to pray is simple.  Here is his definition of a good prayer followed by an explanation of it using imagery his barber could easily grasp:

In a good prayer one fully remembers every word and thought from the beginning to the end of the prayer.  So a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving and cutting.  If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else, he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat.  Thus, if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverbs says, ‘He who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.’  How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!”

To keep his mind “razor-sharp,” Luther taught that the Christian must learn to use the Bible to pray.  Luther’s book structures praying on his Small Catechism, which is primarily based on the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.

In so ordering his book, Luther holds to a precedent that is reflected in nearly all the catechisms that came out during the time of the Reformation. Most of the catechisms, including the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, have a large section (usually at the end) devoted to questions and answers about the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Our fathers in the faith believed that the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer summarize how the Word and prayer are central to the Christian’s life.  They help us focus on what God’s main expectations are for His people.  In essence, the Ten Commandments are the 1-2-3’s of Christian living and the Lord’s Prayer is the ABC of praying.

Thus, Luther believed we should use the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer as the structure to give our prayers a God-ordained focus. He encouraged Master Peter to begin prayer by warming his heart by reciting the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, or reading or quoting a psalm. This action is done not so much to pray them but to begin meditating upon them, allowing their content to guide and direct our prayers.

Next, Luther suggested praying for some of the petitions and commandments the Lord put on his heart. To help in this, a portion of the catechism over the petitions can be read.  I would also encourage reading Luther’s instruction on each of these petitions in his book (you can find it online at the link above or get a copy here). The goal in reading these sections is not so much to memorize the catechism (certainly a worthy activity) or Luther’s prayers so that you end up praying over and over again the same thing.  Rather, this discipline will help guide you into more kingdom-centered, purposeful prayer as you use them as a pattern. Every time I return to Luther’s practice, I realize how shallow and weak my prayers have become in comparison.

Let’s look at two portions of Luther’s book, one from the Lord’s Prayer and the other from the Ten Commandments, to give you an idea of what this type of praying looks like.   From the first petition on hallowing the name of the Lord, listen to Luther’s passion and intensity:

Then repeat one part or as much as you wish, perhaps the first petition: “Hallowed be thy name,” and say: “Yes, Lord God, dear Father, hallowed be thy name, both in us and throughout the whole world. Destroy and root out the abominations, idolatry, and heresy of the Turk (Note: As I mentioned in a previous post, this was a sixteenth century term for the Muslim), the pope, and all false teachers and fanatics who wrongly use thy name and in scandalous ways take it in vain and horribly blaspheme it. They insistently boast that they teach thy word and the laws of the church, though they really use the devil’s deceit and trickery in thy name to wretchedly seduce many poor souls throughout the world, even killing and shedding much innocent blood, and in such persecution they believe that they render thee a divine service.

Dear Lord God, convert and restrain. Convert those who are still to be converted that they with us and we with them may hallow and praise thy name, both with true and pure doctrine and with a good and holy life. Restrain those who are unwilling to be converted so that they be forced to cease from misusing, defiling, and dishonoring thy holy name and from misleading the poor people. Amen.”

As you think about the recent events in Paris or immigration, note how Luther would direct us to pray that the harmful influences would be rooted out and restrained even while we pray for the conversion of others.

Now, in praying through the commandments, Luther encourages what he calls the four “strands of prayer” – instruction, thanksgiving, confession, and petition.  He recounts the instructions of the commandment, thanks God for His provision seen in the commandment, confesses his and the church’s failure regarding the commandment, and finally asks God to fulfill the commandment more in his life and in the lives for those he is praying.   Here is his prayer on the first commandment for another example.

‘I am the Lord your God, etc. You shall have no other gods before me,’ etc. 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. 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! 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 fearfully provoked his wrath by countless acts of idolatry. I repent of these and ask for his grace. 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.'”

If you need further encouragement to consider Luther’s book, here is R.C. Sproul’s endorsement:

No book has done more to revolutionize my personal prayer life than this little book by Martin Luther. I would recommend it for every Christian’s library.”

You can go here to listen to a free audio download of Dr. Sproul reading the children’s book he wrote about Luther and his barber.

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