2 Tips for Simple Prayer from Martin Luther
“Could you pray for the meal?” Never was there such a terrifying and yet wonderful question to be asked.
As a yes or no question, it seems like the answer should be so easy. And yet, for me at least, when someone asks me to pray in a group gathering such as before a meal, there must be at least one hundred brief thoughts that run through my mind. . .“What should I say? How should I say it? Should I use really big words so that the people around the room are impressed with my level of spirituality? Maybe I should throw a little bit of emotion in there to make it feel more genuine and heartfelt!”
The bigger the group, the more these questions run through my mind. But ultimately, my goal in praying isn’t always the purest: to impress those around me who are listening to me pray. I don’t want to disappoint them by praying some simple little prayer that the average Joe on the street could pray! After all, I am a Christian; I go to church and read my Bible every day.
It is a dangerous, slippery slope for me, and I know through talking with others that I’m not alone in this. We have a natural desire to do the best that we can, and this can often come out in communal prayer. While I’m not saying that this is inherently a bad thing, it is something that needs to be evaluated in order to assure that we are not veering away from God’s intent for prayer.
Martin Luther: An Introduction
Martin Luther, a 16th-century theologian and monk, has influenced much of the way that the Church is today through his work during the Protestant Reformation. While not all agree with his views, I believe that he has something very helpful and radical to offer in terms of prayer.
He saw a problem that we can still see and experience today. That is: individuals often try to get fancy with their prayers. Because of what he saw and from a discussion about prayer with a friend, he wrote a piece called A Simple Way to Pray. And simple it is. He turns to two different places in praying a simple prayer.
Praying The Lord’s Prayer
What better place to begin than praying the way that Jesus first commanded his disciples:
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in Heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
What a beautiful prayer to model our prayers after; it is truly a gift that we have a template for our prayers. As I say that, I want to be clear that although Luther emphasizes that we should be sure to pray what the Lord is praying, we can say more than just these words. What Luther means is that we should model our prayers after the example that the Lord gives us.
The Lord has wonderfully broken his prayer up into parts so that we might be better able to digest them in small bits. At the beginning of his letter, Luther cautions his friend to focus on just one line at a time. If you only get through praying one line, that’s okay. But when we pray through one of these lines, he encourages us to use what is better known today as the ACTS model of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.
Let’s take the line, “Your kingdom come” as an example. In adoration, you might praise the Lord for his Kingdom that we know is ultimately greater than the powers of this world, and the ways that you see his glory on display.
In moving to confession, you might confess that you sometimes don’t really desire for his Kingdom to come because things right now aren’t too bad. It can be hard to desire the Kingdom to come when it seems like something that’s so far off and wouldn’t happen in your lifetime.
Thirdly, you could thank him for coming once through his Son and bringing the Good News of the Kingdom, knowing that he is preparing a place for us and will return and bring us to himself (John 14:2-3)!
Lastly, supplication might look like praying for those who don’t know about the Kingdom and aren’t yet a part of it. You could lift up those around you who are in your circle to come to know the Good News of this Kingdom before his Kingdom does come.
This is just an example of the way that you can pray through the ACTS model using each line of the Lord’s Prayer. And as Luther would want to remind us again, the goal is not to get through the entirety of the Lord’s Prayer, but instead to focus on digging into one line. If that leads to another line, then it leads to another line. But if it lends itself to being a day of only contemplating on one line, that can be just as helpful.
Praying Through The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17) can be approached in a similar way as the Lord’s Prayer, through using the structure of the ACTS model. Martin Luther, in his writing about praying the Ten Commandments, has a clear passion and joy in the gift that these commandments are as a guide for our lives and in our prayers: “[The commandments] are intended to help the heart come to itself and grow zealous in prayer.”
The Ten Commandments are significantly different than the Lord’s Prayer though, and they provide a different set of opportunities to seek the face of the Lord and to grow deeper in relationship with him.
In praying the Ten Commandments, Luther suggests praying for specific groups of people that fall into the categories of the commandments. For example, in praying the commandment to keep the Sabbath, he prays for himself and everyone else who observes the Sabbath to be preserved from the attacks of the devil on that day of rest and worship. Or, in considering the commandment to honor your father and mother, he blesses his family and prays over their interactions together.
Putting Simple Prayer in Action
I give these examples in order to hopefully give you a better idea and picture of what a simple prayer could look like. Obviously, the structure of your prayer may change depending on being in a communal versus personal setting. But one thing should be kept in mind regardless of who you’re praying with: prayer is a space for relational growth with the Lord. While our prayers may at times take place with an audience of other people around us, our thoughts should never be focused on figuring out what to say so that we can impress others. Instead, we should keep our focus on our God and Father, to whom our prayers are given.