Martin Luther's "A Simple Way to Pray"

keller prayerIn his book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Tim Keller explains the simple instructions Martin Luther gave to those aiming at improved prayer life.

Martin Luther's most famous writing on prayer was also in the form of a letter to a friend. Luther was an extraordinary man of prayer himself. Veit Dietrich, one of Luther's friends, wrote: "There is not a day on which he does not devote at least three hours, the very ones most suitable for work, to prayer. Once I was fortunate to overhear his prayer. Good God, what faith in his words! He speaks with the great reverence of one who speaks to his God, and with the trust and hope of one who speaks with his father and friend."

Peter Beskendorf was the barber who shaved Luther and cut his hair. One day Peter asked Luther to give him a simple way to pray. Peter was a devout though flawed man. While intoxicated at a family meal, he stabbed his own son-in-law to death. Partly through Luther's intervention Peter was exiled rather than executed, but he endured difficult final years. However, he took with him one of the great texts on the subject of prayer in all of Christian history. Luther gave Peter a rich but practical set of guidelines for prayer.

To begin with, Luther counsels the cultivation of prayer as a habit through regular discipline. He proposes praying twice daily. "It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourselves against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, "Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.'" Luther is no romantic. He concludes, "We are as strictly and solemnly commanded to pray as in the others...not to kill, not to steal, etc." We must pray whether we feel like it or not.

Next, Luther proposes ways to focus our thoughts and to warm and engage our affections for prayer. This is a balancing truth to that of prayer as a duty. Yes, we should pray regardless of feelings, and yet we should do everything we can to engage and warm our hearts, because prayer is lifting of the heart to God (Lam 3:41). It is wrong, he writes, that believers should be "cool and joyless in prayer," and therefore Luther proposes a preparation for prayer. He advises what he calls "recitation to yourself" of some part of the Scripture such as "the Ten Commandments [or] the words of Christ, etc." This recitation is a form of meditation (or "contemplation," as Luther calls it) of the Scripture, but it is not mere Bible study. It is taking words of the Scripture and pondering them in such a way that your thoughts and feelings converge on God. By this practice, he says, "I want your heart to be stirred and guided...rightly warmed and inclined toward prayer." This meditation on the Word is then a kind of bridge as you move from a more formal study of the Bible to prayer.