Of all the things Martin Luther is known for, among the foremost is his dedication to prayer. He is famous for commenting, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” He wasn’t exaggerating, either. Many of his friends and students could attest that he would spend several hours on his knees in fervent, daily prayer — often at seemingly inopportune times in the middle of the day.
At one point, Luther’s barber and longtime friend, Peter Beskendorf, asked if he would teach him how to pray. Luther responded by writing Beskendorf a letter which he called, “A Simple Way to Pray.” Luther’s letter is a gourmet buffet for all Christians who hunger for more rich and satisfying prayerfulness.
While I would encourage anyone to enjoy the full buffet, for now I will simply provide the first course: a simple way to pray by using the Lord’s Prayer.
Prone to Wander in Every Age
But why should we go to Luther for help praying in the twenty-first century in the first place? Most of our modern problems with prayer are born of distraction: email alerts, Facebook notifications, constantly revolving media. How can Luther help us with these sorts of problems?
“The problem of our prayerlessness is not simply with our smartphones or schedules, but with our hearts.”
In fact, Luther directly approaches this very obstacle in his letter. Hear how his words resonate with your own difficulties with prayer:
Guard yourself carefully 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.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day. . . .
We must be careful not to break the habit of true prayer and imagine other works to be necessary which, after all, are nothing of the kind.
It is strangely encouraging to be reminded that our temptation toward distraction from prayer for the sake of seemingly “more productive” tasks is not unique to the digital age. The problem of our prayerlessness is not simply with our smartphones or schedules. The problem is with our hearts. So, if we really want to grow in our prayer life, we must take aim at something much deeper than surface distractions: our most inward affections and desires.
And this is where the Lord’s Prayer is most helpful.
How to Pray as Jesus Taught Us
First, Luther recommends simply to pray through the prayer once, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 6:9–13). He then says to go back through the prayer and pray each petition individually:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Luther exhorts us to let each petition guide our prayer. So, after praying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” we may continue to pray, “Yes, Father, it is our great desire that your name would be feared and revered for who you are: our God, our Creator, the Holy One who, in unthinkable mercy, gave your only begotten Son to save us from your wrath upon our sin.”
We can then move to the next petition, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and pray, “We know that Jesus is reigning right now with authority over all things, and yet we still experience much brokenness here on earth. Father, bring your kingdom in greater measure today, beginning in my own heart and pouring out to my home, community, city, nation, and to the ends of the earth.”
“Structure and spontaneity in prayer are not at all at odds with one another.”
Eventually, we move through each petition until we’ve reached the “Amen.” We might be inclined to think of the Amen as the simplest, least significant part of the Lord’s Prayer. However, Luther does not dismiss it so quickly. Instead, he exhorts us to make a bold, powerful, and confident “Amen.”
You must always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers. . . . Do not leave your prayer without thinking, “Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.” That is what Amen means.
Three Benefits of Praying the Lord’s Prayer
There are probably dozens of benefits to praying to God as God himself taught us. Here, I will just offer three. Praying the Lord’s Prayer enables us to:
1. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
Personally, I tend toward praying inward-focused prayers that center on my confession, my problems, and my requests. Praying the Lord’s Prayer as Luther recommends helps us to seek a greater awareness of Christ, other people, and God’s broader mission in our prayers.
2. Discipline our wandering minds.
Our minds drift so easily in times of prayer. One moment I’m praying, the next I’m thinking about that email I need to reply to. Utilizing the structure of the Lord’s Prayer helps me to recognize when my mind has wandered and helps me remember where to pick up again.
3. Build a fence so our prayers can run wild inside.
As I mentioned earlier, our lack of prayerfulness is chiefly a heart issue. Some people may push back on this method of prayer, saying that it is too structured and therefore restrains the Spirit’s spontaneous leading. In fact, I have found the opposite to be true.
As someone who has always favored unscripted prayers that express heartfelt longings and desires, I have not found structure and spontaneity to be at all at odds with one another. I am amazed to find that, every time I pray through the Lord’s Prayer as Luther has commended, my prayers have been richer, deeper, and more revealing, and have unlocked affections that are otherwise seldom seen.
Learning to Desire God as God Desires
Why would Jesus command us to “pray like this” (Matthew 6:9)? Jesus did not simply provide some words for disciples who had nothing else to say to God. Rather, the Lord’s Prayer is meant to have a total, shaping effect on our hearts, helping us to see and yearn for the very things that God himself desires — most centrally, to see and experience more of God himself in our hearts and lives.
“The Lord’s Prayer is meant to have a total, shaping effect on our hearts.”
Obviously, there’s no silver bullet for achieving the perfect prayer life, but I have found Luther’s method to be an effective weapon in fighting for a richer prayer life. Personally, I’ve experienced a renewed sense of expectancy in prayer, with more excitement and intentionality, and a deeper love for Jesus and appreciation for the cross-won gift of prayer. Inasmuch as it has benefited me, I commend it to you.
With that, I will end where Luther begins: “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.”