Prayer is somewhat elusive for a lot of us. Even as a full-time pastor prayer does not come naturally. We know the “why” of prayer, but we don’t necessarily know the “what” of prayer.
What is it that Luther can teach us today about prayer? Is there anything that we can import from the sixteenth century that can help us pray today? Luther is famous for praying for three hours a day first thing in the morning. Despite a hectic schedule, Luther knew that prayer could not be spared.
To ease the process, we will look at three instances where Luther deals with the topic of prayer. The first is Luther’s analysis of Abraham’s prayer for Sodom in Genesis 18, the second is his commentary on Jonah, and third his small tract entitled A Simple Way to Pray.
Luther is not only concerned about praying itself, but also about the correct way to pray. More specifically he is concerned with our approach and content of our prayers. Luther sees Abraham’s prayer in Genesis 18 as a model prayer. Why? Luther gives us four reasons. First, Abraham’s prayer contains intercession for others. So often we get wrapped up in our own lives that we forget to use the tool of prayer for others. Luther commends Abraham for not being self-centered and using prayer for only benefitting himself. Second, Abraham’s prayer is a prudent one. Abraham does not over-ask or expect too much. The prayer challenges God, but not in an antagonistic way. Abraham expects God to take care of His children – to keep His promise. Third, Luther sees Abraham’s prayer as a model for us because it contains emotion. Abraham is passionate in his plea to God for the people of Sodom. The prayer is far the rote sort of prayers that Luther was used to as a monk or that were taught to laypeople in Wittenberg. Luther said that one should be passionate; they should cry out to God with emotion. Lastly, it has boldness, persistence, and humility. Abraham really pulled no punches in his request to God. As mentioned earlier, Abraham challenges God to keep His promise to protect the wicked. This in itself was bold. Abraham takes it a step further by continuing to increase his request at each turn. This is true boldness! Abraham’s prayer is an inspiration for Luther and should be for us as well.
The story of Jonah is well known, but perhaps not for the reasons it should. Yes, surviving three days in the belly of a whale is amazing! Perhaps more important in the story of Jonah is Jonah’s example of prayer. Many scholars believe that some of Luther’s most powerful language comes from Luther’s commentary on Jonah, specifically Jonah 2:2 - “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (NRSV). Luther indicates that Jonah’s cry teaches us two lessons. The first is that in times of trial we should call out to God and place our needs before Him. The second is that we must believe that God will answer our pray when we cry out to Him. Luther also indicates that Jonah’s true victory is not when the fish spits him out. The true victory is when Jonah overcomes his inclination not to pray and reaches out to God!
As we have seen Luther is greatly concerned with equipping lay Christians with tools that will help them with their faith. In “An Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer for Simple Laymen” Luther gives simple and clear directions on the how and why of prayer. Luther sees the Lord’s Prayer as the greatest example of prayer for the Christian: “it would be better for you to pray one Lord’s prayer with a devout heart and with thought given to the words, resulting in a better life, than for you to acquire absolution through reciting all other prayers” (LW 42:22). When approaching prayer, specifically the Lord’s Prayer, Luther gives three motives for prayer. First, you should pray out of sheer obedience. God commands us to pray. When we reach out to God in prayer we are showing our obedience. Second, prayer should not be done reluctantly or grudgingly. When we lift our hearts in pray we should be happy and excited to do so! Lastly, prayers should be spoken with devoutness of heart. God teaches that He doesn’t just want our words, but also our hearts.
Prayer is not something that we all are good at or even inclined to do. Nevertheless, we are called to it. Martin Luther calls us to a life of prayer. Not only does he call us to life of prayer he informs us on what a practical life of prayer should look like.