by Rev. Matthew L.G. Zickler
Something I always say as a pastor is that our sinful nature prevents us from seeing just how broken we really are by sin. One of the effects of this is found in the inability that we have to even pray properly. I don’t know about you but I find this to be the case for myself. I also hear this from people in my congregation as well. They’re not sure how best to pray, not sure how best to have a devotion, how to read and study God’s Word. Jesus’ disciples acknowledged this when they asked Him to teach them to pray (a common practice for disciples of a rabbi at that time). He responded by giving them the Our Father, our Lord’s Prayer.
In 1535 Luther was approached about the question of how to pray by his barber and friend Peter. In response to the question Luther wrote an open letter he called, “A Simple Way to Pray.” The opening words of that work acknowledge so well the weakness we all face as we try to pray faithfully as Christians: “I’ll do my best to show you how I approach prayer. May our Lord God help us all to do better in this regard. Amen.” He continues in this honesty, in comforting words to anyone who has ever felt less than diligent in their prayer life: “First, sometimes I feel I am becoming cold and apathetic about prayer. This is usually because of all of the things that are distracting me and filling my mind.” In this same vein, he says elsewhere, “We have to be absolutely certain that we do not allow ourselves to be distracted from genuine prayer. The devil is not lazy! He will never stop attacking us.” In fact, to address this challenge, he makes the point that “it is such a good idea to start your day, first thing, early in the morning, by praying, and then make it the last thing you do at the end of the day. This way you can prevent lying to yourself by saying, ‘Oh I can wait a little while. I’ll pray in an hour or so, but first I need to do this or that.’ It is this kind of thinking that will have you believe something better, or more important, than prayer, particularly if some emergency demands your attention.”
When explaining prayer, Luther uses the Psalms as a guide. But in addition to reading and praying the Psalms, he says, “I begin [prayer] by saying the Ten Commandments out lout to myself, then the Creed, and if I have time, I like to repeat certain sayings of Christ, or of Paul, or the Psalms, as the children do.” This shows yet another reason that Luther lists the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer in the Catechism. Those of you familiar with Luther’s Small Catechism will know that he includes these three things in the Catechism, along with sections on Baptism, Confession, and the Lord’s Supper. But these first three are what Luther understood that every Christian should know at a bare minimum. Do you know these by heart? If you don’t, you can see how helpful Luther’s advice is here. You can imagine how quickly you would learn the creed and commandments if you say them daily.
However, Luther notes that as one says these words, they shouldn’t be mindlessly and heartlessly muttered, but considered faithfully: “This is why I maintain that there is nothing more laughable that anyone could possibly come up with than watching how mixed up thoughts become when a cold distracted heart produces them while you are praying. But now, God be praised, I realize what a poor prayer it is when one forgets even what one was praying! A true prayer meditates on all the words and thoughts of the prayer, from beginning to end.” In fact, as one prays, he should be very aware of his thoughts. He should even be aware of distractions that come: “It often happens that I get lost in right and good thoughts as they come… When such rich thoughts come, just let other prayers go and give these thoughts plenty of room… For in this way the Holy Spirit is preaching to you.”
We must clarify what Luther is saying here. He isn’t saying that whatever we come up with when we pray must be right. He isn’t saying that the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts in such a way that trumps the words of Scripture. Instead, Luther is saying that as we are meditating on the words our Lord gives us in His Commandments, in His Prayer, and in the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit promises to come through that Word and lead us to pray, just as we see in Romans 8, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
As Luther describes this pattern of prayer, he doesn’t just leave it in vagueness, as helpful as this broad instruction might be. He also adds something quite specific that is all the more helpful. He says that as he meditates on the Commandments and the Creed, he does so in a way that makes each Commandment and article of the Creed a “wreath of four strands.” These four strands take the Commandments and articles, seeking “first, instruction: I read each commandment and consider what it is teaching me, as intended by the commandment, and think about what God is so earnestly demanding of me. Second, thanksgiving: I use the commandment to thank God for something. Third, confession of sin. Fourth, I use the commandment to say a prayer using these or similar words.”
As we consider this whole approach to prayer, Luther does give two more kernels of wisdom worth noting. As we attempt to hone our discipline of prayer, it can be easy to try to go from not praying at all to spending hours at a time in devoted prayer. However, Luther advises, “Watch out that you do not bite off everything, or too much, right away and thus make the spirit weary. Likewise, a good prayer should not be long, nor should it be drawn out, but prayed often and fervently. It is sufficient if you work through one point or part of another so that you can kindle a flame in the heart. Now that will, and must, be given by the Spirit, and He will continue to instruct our hearts, if they are cleared out and emptied by God’s Word of foreign thoughts.”
These words of advice are valuable not only from a practical level in relation to the ease with which we become weary trying to make our prayer overly long too quickly, but also on a spiritual level as we see the need for this prayer to be received in the work of the Holy Spirit. Not only do we receive our very righteousness by the work of our Lord Jesus on the cross for us, but even every aspect of the Christian life is a pure gift received from our Lord. The gift of prayer itself is something the Holy Spirit Himself must work in us, which we receive from Him.
In connection to the necessity of the Spirit and his work in us, Luther’s last kernel helps us to understand that as this work happens in us, it is not something that our Lord works in us unto ourselves. Our Lord gives us this Spirit, this forgiveness in the midst of His whole Church: “Where the Holy Christian Church is, there one finds God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit, that is, the One who there daily sanctifies through the forgiveness of sin, etc. And there is the Church, where God’s Word is rightly preached regarding such faith… Pray for a genuine strong faith that will endure and remain until you come to that place where it all will abide eternally, that is, after the resurrection of the dead in eternal life. Amen.”
May our Lord guard us and keep us in this faith, in prayer, and in His Church until that day of His return.
The Rev. Matthew Zickler is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Western Springs, Ill.
 Luther, Martin. A Simple Way to Pray: For Peter, the Master Barber. Trans. Matthew C. Harrison. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012. Print, p. 6.
 Ibid, p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 6.
 Ibid, p. 14.
 Ibid, p. 13.
 Ibid, p. 16, cf. also 28.
 Ibid, p. 27.
 Ibid, p. 30.